In the days between the last of the preliminary games and the quarterfinals of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup, U.S. men's soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann tried to get into the head of his team's leading scorer.
Though Clint Dempsey had scored three of his team's four goals in the first three games of the tournament, Klinsmann said he gave the 32-year-old striker "a couple of numbers he should have in the back of his mind and go for them" as the U.S. got ready to play Cuba Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Dempsey, whose Gold Cup began with him relinquishing the captain's armband to veteran midfielder Michael Bradley after a heated confrontation with a referee led to a red card and three-game suspension from Major League Soccer, heeded Klinsmann's desire that he continue to score.
After scoring twice in the opening, 2-1, win over Honduras and once in a 1-0 win over Haiti, Dempsey achieved his first hat trick in an international match when he scored three goals in Saturday's 6-0 rout.
Dempsey used his head on the first goal after taking a cross from defender Timmy Chandler in the fourth minute, his touch on the second on a penalty kick in the 64th minute and his determination on the third when he slid toward a pass in the box from Bradley in the 78th minute and flicked in the shot with the outside of his right foot.
It gave Dempsey six goals in this year's Gold Cup, the most of any player in the tournament. He now has a total of 10 in the biennial event, second all-time among American players, behind former U.S. star Landon Donovan (18). Dempsey's 47 goals in 117 games for the national team is also second to Donovan (57 in 157) among U.S. players.
''He's always [had] a striker mentality,'' Bradley said of Dempsey Saturday. ''He's a guy who is hungry and determined to make big plays, hungry and determined to score goals. And that's always been him. It doesn't really matter whether he's lined up as an out-and-out striker, as a second striker, a little bit underneath somebody else, even at times under my dad (former U.S. coach Bob Bradley) when he and Landon played tilted wide."
Klinsmann, who scored the same number of goals as Dempsey in his nine seasons and 108 appearances with the German national team — he also had nine goals in 28 games with West Germany — said he told his players not to waste scoring opportunities against Cuba. The U.S. had four goals in the first half, including the first international goal by defender Omar Gonzalez, the former Maryland star.
Recalling a 1990 World Cup group-stage game against the United Arab Emirates, Klinsmann said Saturday that he scored only once in West Germany's 5-1 rout.
"I should have scored five," he said. "By the time after two games into the World Cup, I would have been already the top scorer of the tournament. But I didn't do it. That's what I told them."
Klinsmann said he didn't give a specific number of goals he wanted from Dempsey for the remainder of the Gold Cup when they talked prior to Saturday's game.
"It's about his personal drive, and goal scorers, strikers live by the fact of how many games, how many goals," Klinsmann said. "It's your ratio that you look at with your national team and with your club team. That drives you. It's as simple as it is. Whatever number he gave himself, hopefully he will achieve those numbers."
Dempsey was low key Saturday night about one of the more impressive performances of his career.
"You always want to score as many goals as possible, but the most important thing is if the team does well," Dempsey said. "We want to win this tournament so we can be at the Confederations Cup [in Russia in 2017]. We know we've got two difficult games ahead of us. We know the semifinals will be difficult. We can't look past Jamaica or Haiti."
The U.S will play Jamaica, a 1-0 winner over Haiti in Saturday's second quarterfinal game, Wednesday in Atlanta. The final will be held Sunday in Philadelphia. The U.S. won the 2013 Gold Cup, 1-0, over Panama in Chicago.
The United States beat an undermanned Cuban team; five players were not available Saturday, all having defected during the tournament, and another key performer was out because of injury.
Asked whether Saturday's performance will carry over despite those advantages, Dempsey said: "Good habits carry over. Scoring goals, getting [shutouts], people getting assists — our confidence grows in the team as the tournament goes on. Hopefully, our best ball is yet to come."
Whether the same can be said on a larger scale about Dempsey is up for debate, given his age. Klinsmann was Bayern Munich's top scorer when he was 31 and 32. At age 33, Klinsmann once scored four goals in a game to help Tottenham Hotspur avoid relegation to the English Premier League.
Klinsmann said much of the future will be decided by Dempsey.
"We all hope for a long period of time still," Klinsmann said. "Especially for him, we talked about that as well, as a forward you live off your goals. This is what drives you, this is what makes you hungry every day. … It's only him that decides that path going forward. If he stays hungry, if he stays sharp and he stays healthy, we keep going."
Klinsman said that it is more than Dempsey's goal-scoring that has helped the U.S. in its bid for a second straight Gold Cup.
"What we've liked the last two weeks is his energy to also come back and help out and to constantly stay in the game," Klinsmann said.
Yet Dempsey's biggest contribution is putting the ball in the net.
"He's hungry for goals, first of all, and that helps us," Klinsmann said. "So he has two more meals."
Undoubtedly, he hopes they will be happy meals.