10:55 am Oct. 17, 2012
In case you were wondering who the U.S. Soccer Player of the Year would be, Clint Dempsey put your question to rest on Tuesday night. And he did so at an awfully important time.
Dempsey scored a pair of goals, and played a vital part in a third, as the United States defeated Guatemala, 3-1, to advance to the final stage of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
The U.S. knew it needed a tie or a victory to ensure the team would advance, and an early goal from Guatemala's Carlos Ruiz in the game's fifth minute put the U.S. down, 1-0.
Often, especially in this round of qualifying, the U.S. has relied on goalkeeper Tim Howard to help save the day. But Howard has limited power to start a comeback on his own, since he can prevent goals, but not score them (except that one time).
Enter Dempsey. In the tenth minute, Dempsey got his head on a strong corner from Graham Zusi and navigated the ball toward the goal. Carlos Bocanegra then tapped in the goal, but it appeared Dempsey's header was headed in anyhow. The quick response ended any Guatemalan momentum, and restored the hometown Kansas City crowd as a significant presence.
A few minutes later, Dempsey put the Americans ahead for good, exquisitely timing a run down the center of the field, receiving a pass from Eddie Johnson, and sending the ball past the Guatemalan keeper with a lunging shot.
Finally, ten minutes before halftime, the U.S. broke down the Guatemalan defense once again, and Michael Bradley sent a shot towards the Guatemalan net. It appeared to be headed for the goal, but Dempsey, to make certain, tapped it in.
It was a microcosm of the larger takeaway from the night. The United States didn't rely on any late heroics, or assume a defensive crouch to protect the tie they'd need to advance. They put Guatemala away, and the primary reason was Dempsey.
The recently-signed member of Tottenham Hotspur is the highest-profile American in England's Premier League. And as he showed Tuesday night, he's probably the most important player on the national team as well.