The voice had a sound of panic and helplessness. Like some sort of premonition of doom. It was July 22 of this year at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and the Gold Cup semifinal between the United States and Costa Rica was tied at zero.
He had been warming for most of the second half, and it was right around the 66th minute that Clint Dempsey got the signal from U.S. coach Bruce Arena that he was going in.
Seeing Dempsey make his way toward the fourth official, the 45,516 inside the home of the Dallas Cowboys roared like it was a Dak Prescott touchdown pass to Dez Bryant. But in a certain corner of the press box, the reaction was the exact opposite.
“Noooo!” yelled a Costa Rican journalist. Heads turned briefly in bemusement to the man with the pained look on his face, and six minutes later his worst fears would be realized: Dempsey, once again, had put the Ticos to the sword, setting the table for Jozy Altidore’s opener.
Ten minutes later Dempsey sealed the deal, scoring via free kick: 2-0, job done.
“They had Dempsey, which made the difference,” said glum-looking Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez in the post-match news conference. “On our bench we didn’t have that.”
Fast forward six weeks and Costa Rica once again must confront their Nacogdoches, Texas-born bogeyman in Friday’s World Cup qualifier in Harrison, N.J. While fear may be too strong a word to use, it would be lying to say there isn’t some uneasiness being felt among Ticos everywhere.
“There is not a fear, but a special attention paid to Dempsey. It’s obvious that they cannot let Dempsey have any freedom because he has shown what he is capable of,” said Costa Rican journalist Kenneth Gutierrez to ESPN FC. “There are players of [Costa Rica’s] opponents who dominate, and although every match is different, Dempsey has had the fortune that the duels against Costa Rica suit him to play well, and above all exploit his nose for scoring goals.”
All told against the Ticos, Dempsey has four goals. In the grand scheme of Dempsey’s 57 career national team goals, Costa Rica is his fourth favorite victim, tied with Panama. Honduras is first, with seven goals. Guatemala has been hit six times by Dempsey, while Cuba has conceded five to the Seattle Sounders man.
But drilling down deeper you can see why Dempsey has become public enemy numero uno in Costa Rica. The first goal came in the famous “Snow Clasico” of 2013, a match that still elicits a bitter reaction from Tico fans.
After a forgotten goal in a dismal 3-1 U.S. loss in the reverse qualifying fixture for Brazil 2014 at the Estadio Nacional in San Jose, it was the third game in which Dempsey found the net against the Central Americans that the legend started to take hold. In their group-stage affair at the 2016 Copa America Centenario, Dempsey was brilliant, scoring a penalty and earning two assists in a 4-0 U.S. romp.
Due to his heart condition last year, Dempsey missed the humiliating 4-0 payback loss in World Cup qualifying last November, but was back summoning his magic in July in that Gold Cup semifinal.
It all poses a quandary for Arena. Dempsey was used as a super-sub to great effect during the Gold Cup, so should that continue on Friday, paving the way for a Bobby Wood-Jozy Altidore forward combo to start? Or should Dempsey start and try to continue his wizardry against Ramirez’s men?
In a tournament scenario, be it a World Cup or Gold Cup, a substitute’s role makes sense for the 34-year-old. But this is crunch time. This is Costa Rica. Three points are a must for the U.S., because the thought of absolutely having to get a win down in the midday heat of San Pedro Sula next Tuesday is ulcer-inducing for any U.S. fan. Simply put, Dempsey needs to be the guy.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s because whether Dempsey starts or comes of the bench, deep down Costa Rica knows that at some point or another, the U.S. No. 8 will make the difference.
“As a starter or substitute, Dempsey is always a danger. Just like what happened at the Gold Cup. He’s gets on the field and he finishes things off,” said Gutierrez.
Either way, Dempsey is a dilemma with which Costa Rica will have to deal.
Arch Bell covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .