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  • Clint Dempsey returns to the U.S. men's national team after an irregular heartbeat scare as one of 24 players called in by Bruce Arena for a pair of key World Cup qualifiers.
By Brian Straus
March 15, 2017

No American player in recent years has been more reliable in big games than Clint Dempsey, and U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena appears to be counting on the fact that months on the sideline haven’t eroded the veteran forward’s knack for coming through in the clutch.

Dempsey, 34, hasn’t played for his country in nearly nine months and has logged only 180 minutes for the Seattle Sounders since being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat last August. But the Americans need at least four points out of their upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Honduras (March 24) and Panama (March 28), and Dempsey has a habit of scoring in the matches that matter. He paced the U.S. attack at last year’s Copa América Centenario (three goals), in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup (seven), and at the 2014 World Cup finals (two) and in qualifying (eight).

“Clint has a history that is almost second to none,” Arena said.

And so Dempsey, who’s return to the national team was no given just a few weeks ago, is among the 24 players named to the team that will contest this month’s critical qualifiers. Arena unveiled his roster Wednesday afternoon. The U.S. is 0-2-0 and in last place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal. The November losses to Mexico and Costa Rica prompted the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann and Arena’s arrival. The former LA Galaxy manager had a good look at his MLS-based contingent during the national team’s January camp but still hasn’t been able to work with players based in Europe or Mexico, who are far further along in their seasons (he’s taken two trips abroad to scout). Those factors presented challenges. But Arena’s selection criteria have been narrowed by circumstance.

“Our approach to these games is simple. We want to win,” he said.

Among the 24 men named Wednesday, 13 were part of the squad that lost in Columbus and Costa Rica in November. Several others, including Jorge Villafaña, Walker Zimmerman, Sebastian Lletget and Dax McCarty, can be considered as “winners” from the January camp. They were out of the picture when Klinsmann was coaching but now appear to have proven their worth.

“We put together a roster that we think has balance and one that gives us an option in playing a number of different ways,” Arena said. “It’s a roster where the primary rationale is to help us be successful in these two games. But we’re also looking down the road and bringing in some young players that we think have an opportunity to be an important part of the national team program as well.”

Here’s a closer look at the team that will contest two of the most important World Cup qualifiers the U.S. has played in recent memory.

Goalkeepers 

Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Others have been tried and tested, but with a little more than a year before the 2018 World Cup these three still are at the top of depth chart.

But Arena’s easy decision-making ends when Guzan, Howard and Rimando arrive in San Jose, the site of the Honduras game. Rimando typically is the No. 3 goalkeeper, but he played well at the January camp, while Guzan has spent too much time on the bench at Middlesbrough and Howard has been nursing an adductor injury suffered in November.

Both former No. 1s finally returned to action, however. Howard played for the first time in four months last weekend as the Rapids lost, 1-0, to the New York Red Bulls. But he looked sharp and made seven saves. Guzan started or ‘Boro in FA Cup action, beating Oxford United on late February before falling to Manchester City in Saturday’s quarterfinal.

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Defenders

John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)

The key name is Cameron, whose absence was felt in November as he dealt with an MCL strain. The versatile defender hasn’t played for the U.S. since October and finally returned to the field for Stoke City on Feb. 26. He started the Potters’ two subsequent matches in defensive midfield but should be deployed as a center back by Arena. The U.S. is solid in the middle as Brooks and Gonzalez vie for a starting role and Orozco and Zimmerman provide depth.

The questions remain on the flanks, as usual. The favorite to start on the right, DeAndre Yedlin, is out thanks to an injury, reportedly to his thigh, suffered in Newcastle United’s March 3 game at Huddersfield Town. Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj also was expected to make Arena’s list, but he’s hurt as well. Lichaj left Saturday’s loss at Burton Albion in the 66th minute.

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Arena has said that he’d prefer to play Fabian Johnson in the midfield, and that’s where he’s listed on this roster. But in a pinch, Johnson may have to slide back to defense. Arena surely has faith in the ageless Beasley, who is a strong candidate to start. Villafaña did well in January but has no qualifying experience. Ream can play in the middle or out wide, but he may not be suited to play on the flank against a team like Honduras. Orozco can also play on the wing. There's no obvious, first-choice right back on the roster.

Among the notable omissions are Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum, Greg Garza, Timmy Chandler and Graham Zusi. Chandler must serve a one-game qualifying suspension, so Arena opted not to bring him over from Germany. Zusi was tried at right back in January camp, and even though he’s been playing there as well for Sporting Kansas City, Arena apparently prefers others in that role.

Midfielders

Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Arena has a wealth of permutations to choose from in midfield, and he believes that’s a good problem to have. As the coach said, he wants the option to play several different systems, and he’s got just about every potential role covered by this group. Lletget’s energetic two-way play obviously made an impression at camp, and the Galaxy man and Nagbe appear to have made the cut over veteran playmakers Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan.

Acosta has been fantastic in the early going for FC Dallas, and his increasing comfort on the attacking end makes Klinsmann’s effort to turn him into an outside back all the more puzzling. Bradley almost certainly will pull the strings from the space just in front of the back four, and Arena won’t have to figure out how to use Jones at first since the Galaxy newcomer is suspended for the Honduras game. His inclusion, contrasted with Chandler’s absence, is due to the fact that Arena doesn’t believe calling in a domestic player for just one game presents a hardship.

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While the roles and responsibilities within the Bradley-Jones pairing often have a massive influence on how the U.S. lines up and plays, this month’s games also will be impacted by how Arena chooses to use Pulisic. The 18-year-old has been fantastic on the flank for Dortmund, for whom he has five goals and eight assists in all competitions this season. But Arena told SI.com this week that he’s considering using the talented attacker in the middle for the USA. Pulisic was ineffective in that role in November against Mexico, but he was collateral damage in a game marred by Klinsmann’s decision to use only three defenders.

In addition to Kljestan and Feilhaber, Kyle Beckerman, Paul Arriola and Julian Green are the absentees worth noting.

Forwards 

Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)

With Dempsey now healthy, picking the four forwards was the easiest part of Arena’s process. They’re clearly the best available. One would think that based on fitness and form, Wood and Altidore are the likely starters if Arena chooses to go with a 4-4-2. But all four can contribute and there are plenty of other options available if the manager wants to tinker. Dempsey can play as a withdrawn forward, Wood has played wide in a 4-3-3 and Morris has experience in that role as well. Arena’s decision on how to use Pulisic and Johnson also will have a domino effect on the front-runners.

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Dempsey has scored four career goals against Honduras and Altidore has struck twice. Wood, meanwhile, has nine goals in 23 games for HSV and scored the game-winner on Saturday against Gladbach.

Regarding Dempsey’s call-up, Arena said, “We know there are some good days still ahead for Clint. He’s made great progress in preseason and his first two games with Seattle, and we think he’s a player that can still help us in these games—perhaps at a reduced role—but a player that still has a tremendous history of scoring goals and creating opportunities. To have that kind of player available I think is invaluable.”

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