A little more than four months before the U.S. World Cup opener, Clint Dempsey is trying to regain his form.
He set a record for an American in Europe with 23 goals for Fulham two seasons ago and earned a transfer to Tottenham, a wealthier and more prestigious London club.
After scoring just 12 goals for Spurs, Dempsey made the surprising decision last summer to return to Major League Soccer and joined the Seattle Sounders for a $9 million transfer fee. But hampered by a calf injury, he scored just once in 12 matches.
Now the U.S. captain is in the middle of a two-month loan back to Fulham, trying to help his old club get out of last place and avoid relegation from the Premier League.
"It's been tough, but also it's been good for me, trying to get back to fitness and feeling good, coming off an injury towards the end of the season with the national team," he said during a telephone interview Thursday. "It's good to get some games, some minutes over here, but unfortunately the results haven't been going our way. But I've still got a month left and hopefully we can start getting some points."
Dempsey, a midfielder and forward who turns 31 next month, started a trend of American soccer repatriation. Michael Bradley, a 26-year-old midfielder, was sold from Italy's Roma to Toronto FC last month for 7 million euros ($9.5 million). Midfielder Maurice Edu moved from England's Stoke to Philadelphia and defender Michael Parkhurst from Germany's Augsburg to Columbus.
After taking over as U.S. coach in 2011, Jurgen Klinsmann had pressed his players to challenge themselves on bigger stages — as long as they put themselves in situations where they saw playing time.
"Obviously, you want more in the Champions League, where the music is played," Klinsmann said in May 2012, adding he told his players "none of you guys, none of you guys have really experienced the highest level of club football on a consistent basis. Maybe a year here or a year there, but not really what it takes to be a consistent performer on the highest level. So I can tell you what it takes to be there, because I was there."
Uncertain of minutes in every match, the quartet returned to MLS and will face a quality of play that has vastly improved but still falls short of what their European clubs experience.
"I'm not worried about that. I think the more important thing for a player is to make sure that's you're playing and you're playing well and playing consistently. If doesn't matter where you are," Dempsey said. "You're seeing more players come back to MLS in their prime and the homegrown talent coming up that's of high quality. I think that game's always continuing to grow and I'm happy to be part of that growth and come back to the league."
Dempsey hasn't scored in six matches with Fulham this year. While he helped the Cottagers reached the Europa League final in 2010, they are last in the Premier League this season at 6-17-1 and were eliminated from the FA Cup this week in the fourth round by Sheffield United, which is 23rd among the 24 clubs in the third-tier League 1.