Clint Dempsey calmly approached, took a quick stutter step and buried his penalty. It was his 50th career United States national team goal and set the tone for Tuesday's 4-0 win over Costa Rica.
He and Landon Donovan (57) are the only Americans with as many as 35 career international goals. Dempsey will eventually pass Donovan as the all-time leading scorer if he is given the opportunities to do so.
Even before that goal, Dempsey’s legacy was safe. No matter what happens from here on out, he’ll be known as one of the best Americans to ever play. He’s succeeded in Europe, won trophies in MLS and produced at every stop along the way, while playing and scoring in three World Cups.
No one can ever take any of that away from him.
As secure as his legacy may be, though, his status is very much in flux. Even before the start of the Copa America Centenario, there had been loud cries that the USMNT needed to move beyond Dempsey. At 33 years old, there’s no denying his time as the team’s focal point is limited.
Whether you believe he is already done, still belongs as the team's offensive focal point or even believe he’ll be leading the line in 2018, this cycle is almost certainly his last.
How deep he goes into this cycle, though, could very well be determined by Saturday’s game against Paraguay. If the United States wins or draws, Dempsey’s place is almost certainly secure for the time being. Expect to see him starting World Cup qualifiers in September. But if they lose? Well, that could trigger a chain reaction that results in Dempsey being pushed out, if not immediately then in the near future.
If Dempsey is pushed out, it won’t be any particular fault of his own, it should be said. Few can argue that Dempsey has been anything but the USMNT’s best offensive player during this tournament. He was the only player creating chances in the opening loss to Colombia and followed that up with a borderline dominant performance against Costa Rica, scoring his penalty and assisting on two other goals.
But if the USA fails to advance out of the group stage, there’s at least a chance that Jurgen Klinsmann is fired, something USSF president Sunil Gulati has hinted at. Klinsmann and Dempsey have had their disagreements — most notably over the decision to come to MLS — but when push has come to shove, the two alphas ardently defended one another. There’s no guarantee that whoever replaces Klinsmann will be so eager to hitch his wagon to an aging Dempsey, and there’s reason to believe he would look to move on.
You can rest assured that Klinsmann’s replacement will come in on a promise of change. He’ll promise to implement a cohesive style. He’ll promise to put players in positions that maximize their talents.
No matter what you think of Dempsey’s skills, it’s hard to escape the idea that he works best when an offense is geared around him. That often comes at a detriment to his teammates. When he's at his best, that’s fine. The cost is worth the reward. He’s scoring goals, creating chances and generally making the "system" secondary. But his presence also relegates players like Cristian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe to the bench, or at least forces them to play something less than their ideal position.
Dempsey seems to at least hear those questioning his role in team. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Dempsey has always been a player who’s at this best when he’s got a chip on his shoulder, when he’s backed into a corner, when he has to prove his doubters wrong. At some point, that won’t be enough. Right now? He might just have enough to push the USMNT to victory.