High school football season’s still eight weeks away. But in Nacogdoches, it’s been fútbol season since June 12. Thanks to native son Clint Dempsey, it’s as if the oldest town in Texas has a team going to “state”—except the team plays soccer for the USA, and state is the World Cup.
Signs, banners, and food and drink specials honoring Dempsey, the 31-year-old U.S. Men’s National Team captain, are all over town. At Banita Creek, a century-old grain mill-turned-dance hall with framed pictures of country artists on its red brick walls, John Michael Montgomery is temporarily covered up by a huge, full-color photo banner, proclaiming that “Banita Creek Hall supports Clint Dempsey and the US National Soccer Team.” A local wine bar—ok, the local wine bar—Liberty Bell, put a little wit into its Clint-inspired menu item, a fish-and-chips sandwich dubbed the “Dempsey FC” (FC being the common term of art for “football club,” as in the name of Dallas’s MLS franchise).
“Everybody’s been glued to the televisions,” said Wendy Lee, the assistant director at the Nacogdoches County Exposition and Civic Center, one of many places local fans gathered to watch the game on Tuesday. “I don’t think much work’s been done in Nacogdoches.”
Or anywhere in Texas, really. Austin delivered the eleventh-highest TV rating in the country (and the highest in Texas) for last Thursday’s USA-Germany match. On Tuesday, AT&T Stadium officials told the Dallas Morning News they were expecting around 5,000 fans for a watch party; instead, according to the DMN’s Alexis Espinosa, the stadium was “slightly less than half full,” which, given its base capacity of 80,000, would be more people than the entire town of Nacogdoches (population: 33,000, more than a third of which is from Stephen F. Austin State University).
At Banita Creek, there were no more than 100 people: adults fans in Dempsey’s white polo-style jersey or blue #8 “shirseys,” high school-aged girls wearing the red kits of their own Nacogdoches Youth Soccer Association team, the Blaze, and people just wearing regular old red-white-and-blue (it is also Fourth of July week, after all).
According to Banita owner Kevin White, the crowd was actually much bigger last week, with between three and four hundred people coming out. He reckons that the 11 a.m. start allowed more folks to sneak away from work at lunch (Tuesday’s game started at 3 p.m.), plus the holiday means some people are on vacation. White himself drove back from Crystal City so he could be in town to watch the game. He’s also flown to Kansas City several times to see Dempsey and the USMNT play.
Dempsey’s sister had her wedding reception at Banita a few years back, so Clint has actually been inside the hall. Most people in town don’t have more than one or two degrees of separation from Dempsey or his family, but regardless, he’s easily the most famous person ever from Nacogdoches—depending on how high you rate country music songwriter Jim Collins (author of Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” among other hits).
“It’s not as popular as football, obviously, but 1.5 billion people play soccer, and he’s at the top of that game,” says White who is also a private investigator and bail bondsman. “It’s unbelievable. That’s bigger than Tiger Woods is to golf, if you think about it.” (Meaning, a lot fewer people play golf, so it’s a smaller talent pool to rise in.)
If you watched the game, you know there wasn’t much to get enthused about in the the first ninety minutes. An early chance by Dempsey had the room exclaiming “OH!” in unison—though there were two different meanings to the sound, with some people expressing excitement at what they thought was going to be a goal, and others expressing their frustration that it wasn’t. The only other cheers are for defensive plays and turns in positional fortune, since that’s really all there was to shout for—neither team would score in regulation—other than goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was tested far more than Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois. He would eventually set a World Cup record for most saves, with sixteen.
A near-miss by the US around seventy minutes in had people bouncing up out of their stools and pulling caps off of their heads in disbelief. “Getting nervous?,” I asked one fan in a blue Dempsey t-shirt with the signature red-and-white coiled #8. With a Bud Light in front of him on the table he was slightly hunched over, hands on his knees, like he’d just finished a sprint. “I’ve been nervous all game,” he told me.
Last week’s more populated event at Banita was also a fundraiser for the Nacogdoches Youth Soccer Association, which has recently started its own affiliates of the Texans (boys) and Challenge (girls) club teams, making it possible for East Texas soccer players to get better coaching and competition closer to home. Dempsey, famously, did not stick close to home, though his mentor, even to this day, is Nacogdoches High School soccer coach and athletic director Farshid Niroumand (known to everyone in town as “Coach Farsh”). Dempsey’s parents used to drive him three hours to Dallas each way several times a week to suit up for the Texans.
“And actually, the speed limit was 55 back then,” says TD Howarth, a member of the Nacogdoches ISD school board, who, like White, is also a private investigator. “So it was probably more like three and a half hours then.”
Howarth’s son also played soccer for Coach Farsh; he and his wife, Angela, went to see Dempsey and the national team play against Germany in Washington, D.C. last summer. “A bucket-list situation,” says Angela Howarth, who has each of her big toes painted in a red, white, and blue eagle motif, with a #8 on one, and a #1 (for Howard) on the other.
Also in the room was second-year SFA women’s soccer coach Wally Crittenden, a 34-year-old Clearlake native, who once played on the US Under-20 team with Howard. Crittenden’s program benefits indirectly from what Dempsey’s done, and he’s involved in youth soccer as well.
“The inspiration and impact that Clint has had on this community and on the soccer culture as a whole here in Nacogdoches is profound,” Crittenden says. “It’s fantastic for our young people to identify with Clint, and the path that he took to get to where he is. And for our older generations to connect as well: with a game that maybe they are not as familiar with.”
By the time the match went into extra time, nobody was having fun, exactly. It’s all stress. And then, unhappiness. When Belgium’s Kevin DeBruyne made it 1-0, there are not even yelps of disappointment: just utter, dead, stunned silence. “There’s no reason to challenge him there,” Crittenden lamented of the failed defensive play that left DeBruyne available to finish.
Then Belgium scores again. Nobody leaves the bar though, and their loyalty is rewarded with a heated comeback effort. When nineteen-year-old American forward Julian Green scores to make it 2-1, the crowd goes genuinely wild. There’s hope. There’s chants of “USA! USA!” The storybook finish would have been for Dempsey to tie up the game, which he came oh-so-close to doing on a free-kick set piece that was stopped point-blank by Courtois. When that happened, the cries are bloodcurdling and poignant, like the whole room saw a childhood pet put down. “Doggone it,” one woman says to White as people begin to leave the room.
But soccer life in Nac goes on. Crittenden will start getting his Ladyjacks ready for the August season opener against Oregon State, a huge non-conference game. And just an hour after the World Cup match ended, there were six Nacogdoches adult league teams on the fields just down the road—at the Clint Dempsey Soccer Complex.
(Correction: This story originally referred to Julian Green as “Justin.”)