Bruce Arena had been clear in recent weeks and months about wanting to be cautious with Clint Dempsey's return to the U.S. national team, but after watching the 34-year-old start two straight matches for the Seattle Sounders, the coach saw enough to believe the time is right to bring him back.
Dempsey is back with the national team for the first time since being sidelined by a heart condition that required surgery, as he headlines the 24-man roster for training camp ahead of crucial World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama.
Dempsey hasn't been with the U.S. since starring at last summer's Copa America, during which he was the team's best player. A heart condition discovered in August forced him to sit out the rest of the year, including the Sounders' run to an MLS Cup title, but he has made a successful return, scoring a goal in Seattle's 2017 opener and most recently playing 90 minutes in a 2-2 draw with the Montreal Impact on Saturday.
"Clint has a history that is almost second to none," Arena said in a statement issued by U.S. Soccer. "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.”
Dempsey leads a strong core of veterans called in for qualifiers the U.S. can't afford to lose after suffering defeats in its first two matches of the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying, against Mexico and Costa Rica in November. Those losses have the Americans sitting in last place in the six-team qualifying group, making the upcoming qualifiers against Honduras (March 24 in San Jose, California) and Panama (March 28 in Panama City) vitally important.
Arena has called in a group heavy on experience, with 10 players having played in five or more World Cup qualifiers, and five players having played 30 ore more qualifiers. That list included DaMarcus Beasley, who should be in contention for the starting left back role, and Tim Howard, who is expected to start in goal after a successful return from surgery that sidelined him for nearly four months.
"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. Our approach to these games is simple: We want to win."
Geoff Cameron also is back with the team for the first time since September's World Cup qualifiers after a four-month stint on the sidelines with a knee injury.
The U.S. team is as close to full strength as it has been since the Copa America, with DeAndre Yedlin the one projected starter not in the squad after recently suffering a thigh injury with Newcastle. Sources also tell Goal that Eric Lichaj will miss the upcoming qualifiers due to an injury.
Another fullback set to sit out the qualifiers is Timmy Chandler, who is suspended for the Honduras match but would have been eligible to face Panama.
"Obviously being suspended for the first game, I didn’t think it was worth having Timmy travel from Europe," Arena said. "Jones is a different situation. He’s a domestic player, so I think that makes a little more sense."
Here is the full roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough/ENG), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: John Brooks (Hertha Berlin/GER), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/ENG), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca/MEX), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana/MEX), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna/MEX), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC/CAN), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Moonchengladbach/GER), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund/GER)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC/CAN), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Bobby Wood (Hamburg/GER)