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.
Fans at Craven Cottage applauded Dempsey during a warm welcome when he returned, but he knows he has to reward them with goals and that lead to points and keep the club from dropping into the second-tier League Championship for the first time since 2000-01.
He's just one of the Americans on a scoring skid. Jozy Altidore broke Dempsey's mark for goals by an American in Europe with 31 last season for the Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, but the forward has just two this season for England's Sunderland.
At the World Cup, the Americans play Ghana, Portugal and Germany in what appears to be the most difficult first-round group. Preparing for its seventh straight World Cup appearance, the U.S. won last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup and topped the final round of qualifying for the third straight cycle.
"The confidence seems to be growing. The quality seems to be getting better. There's more competition for spots," Dempsey said. "They just keep pushing us even more to get better and better. We're coming off one of our most successful seasons, successful years with the national team, and hopefully we can carry that into 2014. I'm excited about the challenge of the World Cup and the group that we're in, and looking forward to going down there and try to continue the growth of the game in the United States and getting out of the group."
Sponsor interest also is increasing. Four years ago, Nike put up a 70½-foot billboard of Dempsey near New York's Penn Station. Dempsey took part in a video chat Thursday for Degree Men deodorant as part of a promotion in which a fan named Faiz Hasya Deniza won a trip to the World Cup that includes a meeting with Dempsey.
For now, Dempsey is living through another London winter. He's actually back in the Wimbledon Village apartment he rented when he first arrived following his sale from the New England Revolution in January 2007.
"I still had the landlord's number," he said. "It's nice to get back into the same flat that I was in, but it's lonely not having the wife and kids over."
He plans to rejoin the Sounders ahead of their MLS opener against Sporting Kansas City on March 8 — three days after the U.S. is scheduled to play an exhibition at Ukraine — and hopes to be sharper than he was when he got to Seattle last summer. He'll have a little more than two months with the Sounders before the national team gathers in mid-May to start final preparations for Brazil.
"It never really changes, your mindset," he said. "All you can do is put in work. That's what you can control, the effort that you put in, and that's what I'm doing."