When people are trash-talking you in Spanish, it helps to know a little Spanish.
My teammate Geoff Cameron and I had decided to watch the Argentina-Venezuela quarterfinal match in the Copa America at this Greek restaurant in Houston. Geoff used to play in Houston, so he knew a spot where we’d be taken care of. We chowed down on some souvlaki, tzatziki and pita, and waited to see who we’d be playing in the semifinals.
Geoff was assessing Argentina’s strikers while I was taking mental notes on its midfielders, seeing where we might be able to make a break in the defense. Venezuela was a heavy underdog. To no one’s surprise, Argentina won 4–1.
Now usually, on the road with the national team there’s a third guy with us: Clint Dempsey. I like to call us the Three Amigos. On the plane, we’ve got our spot. The national team flies charter, so the three of us will stake out one of the prime four-seaters with the table in between. If Geoff’s not napping, we play cards or watch movies on Clint’s iPad. We just jell. Usually when we’re out together, people recognize Clint. Then they turn to Geoff and me. Oh yeah! You two!
But on this night, it was just me and Geoff, keeping things low-key.
The restaurant was getting rowdy. We were off in the corner, and well, you hear things. And maybe because the third amigo wasn’t with us, people didn’t pay too much attention to what they were saying. But after Argentina won — with the help of two assists and a goal from Messi — a stat crawled across the TV screen. Messi was now tied with Clint for the most goals in the tournament. That’s when the chatter started.
“Messi va a tener un hat trick contra los Estados Unidos — que va a ganar la Bota de Oro!”
I’m from a Colombian family — I speak Spanish — so it wasn’t hard for me to make out that what they were saying was, “Messi’s gonna have a hat trick against the USA — he’s gonna get the Golden Boot!”
They went on and on.
“They’re going to kill it!”
“It’s going to be so easy!”
Now, not to beat up on Messi and Argentina — he’s easily the greatest player in the world and they’re one of the best teams in the world. But in the match Geoff and I saw, Leo was given a lot of space and a lot of time on the ball. The U.S. is just not going to play him like that.
So as the whistle blew, Geoff and I just turned to each other.
“You know what? This team’s beatable. We can do this.”
But not a lot of people believe that. People saw our 2–0 loss to Colombia in our first match and they wrote us off.
The coach should be fired. Players should be gone. Clint should be benched. Clint shouldn’t even be on the team.
Are you joking?
Let me tell you about Clint.
People know what he can do on the pitch. He’s arguably the best American soccer player right now. But Clint’s not the guy to give us a Hoosiers-style pump-up speech. If you’re looking for words of wisdom, look elsewhere. He’s not the most vocal guy in the locker room. But Clint’s got something else.
Clint’s got this — I don’t know really what to call it — he’s just got this Texas swagger. A never-back-down attitude.
No matter the situation, Clint gives it his all. Even in training some players might think, Oh, I don’t want to get injured. Well, Clint’s gonna go through that tackle, he’s gonna throw that elbow up, he’s gonna push you away.
Seriously, do not mess with Texas. Clint is blunt. He doesn’t say much. “Pick it up,” is the most you’ll get from him. That, and maybe an elbow. And you’ve got to respect him for that.
But respect seems to be the one thing Clint — and the rest of our team — haven’t been able to get. We’re used to the negativity at this point. To us, it’s just noise, it’s just clicks, it’s just hot takes.
And here’s what I say to that: Go ahead and doubt us. Go ahead and underestimate us.
Because what we’re doing on the field is special. Unlike other teams in other sports, we don’t have the luxury of holding team meetings in someone’s house around big dining room tables. We don’t have a season to work things out. Honestly, the three or four weeks we’ve spent together for this tournament are more than any other time we usually get with each other. And yet the communication on the field — I’ve never been a part of anything quite like it.
This time, it’s just been different between the vets and the new guys. For me, I try to take the responsibility to talk to young players. In this tournament, we started out playing in a 4-3-3 formation, so I have two guys, defender DeAndre Yedlin and forward Gyasi Zardes, on my side of the field. Against Colombia and Costa Rica, we had to build a partnership, a trust, an understanding.
When you get possession of the ball, your first instinct is to look up, to look to pass. But I don’t expect my guys to be there. I know they’re going to be there. DeAndre and Gyasi will be outside the line, and they know they’ll find me on the inside. Day in and day out, we’ve been working on these details. Because that’s all we have: training days to get it right. To follow Clint’s lead and go hard in practice.
Against Ecuador, when Matt Besler came in as left back, I switched over to the same side to help him out. I think he was a little nervous, it was a big game, but I just kept telling him, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve always got your back. I’ve always got your cover.”
I’m going to be there to help out. And John Brooks is going to shift over. And Michael Bradley is going to come over, too. And we know the younger guys are going to step up when Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and myself are sitting out against Argentina because of red- and yellow-card suspensions.
All across the field, we have each other’s back. And when we step off the pitch, we’re still there. We’re not listening to the noise.
We’re listening to each other and we’re listening to you. Because for as much doubt as we’ve faced, our fans have faced it too. Americans don’t get soccer. They don’t understand the game. They’ll never embrace it. We’re not listening to that noise, either. We know that, together with our fans, we’re growing the game.
Before we step out onto the pitch, Jurgen tells us, “Let’s get the crowd behind us.” Usually he’s a pretty mellow guy who keeps us on an even keel. But you’ve seen it these past few weeks — he’s jumping around, he’s throwing his arms up and down. He doesn’t want that golf-clap crowd. Neither do we. And our fans haven’t been that. They’ve been there, right along with us, proving the doubters wrong.
All the outside stuff? It’s just noise. Inside, we know what we have. In the locker room and in those stands, we know what we can do. You didn’t quit on us after that first match. You were there when we proved the doubters wrong in Chicago. And when we proved them wrong in Seattle. And when we proved them wrong in Philly.
But when we take on Argentina on Tuesday night in Houston, we want something else.
We want that Texas swagger.
And we want to get the job done.