IRVINE, Calif. --
Natural fault lines emerged every time Clint Dempsey and his friends piled onto the nearest field. It didn't matter whether they were playing in organized situations back in Nacogdoches or sorting themselves out playing pickup. The same selection process emerged time after time. It unwittingly provided the perfect foundation for the trials and tribulations to follow.
"We were always talking trash against each other in high school," Dempsey said before the Americans trained at the University of California, Irvine on Thursday ahead of the CONCACAF Cup playoff against Mexico on Saturday (live, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, FOX Sports GO). "It was always USA versus Mexico or the rest of the world. It was always about bragging rights."
Those principles endure even as U.S. forward Dempsey lives in this entirely different world. His career carried him to heights and places he could only imagine as he grew up in eastern Texas. He dreamed about the things he eventually experienced and pushed himself every day to get there. He never loomed as the favored option, never stood out as the chosen one as he progressed through the ranks. He earned and scraped for every accomplishment along the way, including the opportunity to captain his country and revive those familiar battles on a much grander stage.
Truth be told, these games suit Dempsey to his core. He grasps the demands imposed by the circumstances and tromps through them without fuss. They dovetail with the fantasy in his approach to the game, the ability to produce something from nothing. They suit his willingness to embrace the gritty, unseemly nature of the proceedings if the situation calls for it. They stoke his intense desire to win every battle, every moment in a match.
"It's always been physical," Dempsey said. "But I think you look back in time, they let more stuff go. The game is officiated a little bit tighter for player safety and making sure the best players stay on the field. I think you see that throughout the world. It's still going to be physical. It's still going to be competitive. Hopefully, it'll be a good game for the fans."
These are the moments Dempsey relishes, but there are no guarantees for the future for the 32-year-old. He is reaching the autumn of his career, the time when it is easier to reflect on his accomplishments than project his influence in the future. There is nothing left for him to prove after excelling in the Premier League, scoring in three World Cups and setting himself to complete his international career as the top scorer for his country (he sits nine goals behind Landon Donovan's record of 57), but the calculus is different now.
Dempsey is still an integral component of the team. He remains the primary threat to score, even if he has never managed the feat against Mexico. He repeatedly notes his desire to feature at the Copa Centenario next year -- if the tournament takes place -- without taking it for granted. And yet the time beckons when he might drift out of the team as other players emerge or turn his complete focus to his family and his role with Seattle Sounders.
Those questions simmer for a later date, but, in his mind, he still needs to prove himself.
"You take it one game at a time, see how you're doing, really," Dempsey said. "But you're always on the chopping block. You're always trying to prove yourself, no matter if you're a young kid or not. Because even though you're young, if you're not performing, you're not going to get called back in. I think it's the same for the older guys. You have to be on your toes. You're making sure you're performing well to make sure you get called in. That's how I look at it."
Dempsey relied on that ambition to propel him to top of the game and secure his enduring place in the firmament of soccer in this country. He needed every last ounce of hunger and motivation to navigate his along his improbable path and place himself in a position to play out those childhood scenarios on this grand stage once again. It is what fuels him as he prepares to tangle with Mexico once more.
"Well, I've always been very proud to represent the U.S," Dempsey said. "Any time you can put on the jersey and play in a big game, it's a dream come true. It's what you dreamed about as a little kid: Playing in games like this with packed stadiums and representing your country in important games. I'm excited for the challenge and I look forward to the game."
The stakes are different now, but the divisions and the objectives remain the same. It is the same old game played out on this massive stage. It is exactly the scenario Dempsey savors with those familiar bragging rights firmly at stake.