Clint Dempsey made his return to competitive soccer last weekend, starting and going 90 for the Seattle Sounders in 2-1 loss at Houston. Did he score a goal? Why yes, of course he did – he's still Clint Dempsey, even after missing the last six months with an irregular heartbeat.
Back in January new USMNT coach Bruce Arena was adamant that Dempsey wouldn't be a part of the World Cup qualifiers coming up at the end of this months, on March 24 against Honduras in San Jose, and then four days later down in Panama. At the time I felt like Arena was stating his position so emphatically as a hedge against the then-very-good chance that Deuce wouldn't, in fact, be available, and thus it was the coach's job to convince the guys on the team at that moment that "What we have in the room, right now, is enough."
You know how teams sometimes rally after they lose a star? That's the motivational methodology explaining that phenomenon.
In the US's case, it wouldn't be a lie, either. Even without Dempsey they should come out of the next two games with at least four points, and (no disrespect to Panama) probably all six.
Still, if Dempsey's available, Arena has to use him despite his caution:
This maybe oversells the Dempsey Effect at least a little bit, since structural and managerial issues were far more at issue than anything else when it came to the US's relative helplessness since 2013. Arena's first job is/was to fix that, and Dempsey's presence or absence doesn't change that calculus.
But he's, at the very least, a band-aid, and he's as good a goalscorer as the US have ever had, and he's a guy who won't be overawed by the must-win nature of the Honduras game or the out-for-blood crowd in Panama. Deuce will play, and my guess is he starts at least one of those games.
It's probably a safe bet to assume Geoff Cameron will play as well. The US center back – who was so instrumental in last summer's strong defensive showing at the Copa America – started and went 90 minutes for Stoke City this past weekend, and he's in the starting XI again as I write this (Wednesday afternoon). Both times he's been played in central midfield, but I'm not overly concerned about this since Cameron's flipped between roles and spots for the duration of his US career.
His chemistry with John Brooks won't have disappeared despite his rust and Cameron, like Dempsey, is a proven commodity in CONCACAF. I'm glad he's back and you should be, too, and I hope we see the Brooks/Cameron central defense in both games.
Less obvious is what is going to happen in goal. Tim Howard, who is still for my money – if not for colleague Will Parchman's – the best 'keeper in the pool, could very well return this weekend for Colorado against New York. The last six months were the time for Brad Guzan to have closed the gap and stake a permanent claim on that No. 1 kit, but he's played exactly once since January 8, and isn't likely to add to that total between now and the end of the month unless something bad happens to Victor Valdes.
Truth is, I'd still probably lean in Guzan's direction for these games simply for health reasons. Having to burn an early sub on a goalkeeper, as happened vs. Mexico when Howard was injured, is brutal in terms of tactical flexibility and sub patterns.
I'll say this, as well: If Howard doesn't return this weekend, I don't even think it's a debate as to who starts. It'll have to be Guzan. But if he does return, and he is fit, then Arena has the good sort of dilemma on his hands.
There is less happy news elsewhere in the pool, as presumptive starting right back DeAndre Yedlin missed Newcastle United's most recent game with a thigh injury. Magpies head coach Rafa Benitez said it could be another one-to-two weeks on the bench for Yedlin, and if it's on the long end of that prognosis, it could open up the right back job for one of three players
• Timmy Chandler: Despite Chandler's well-established pattern of poor play for the US, Arena has studiously mentioned him in just about every interview he's given. Chandler's talent is undeniable – he's an every game starter for a good Eintracht Frankfurt team (6th place in the Bundesliga despite a recent slump), but it's hard to point to a single strong performance in a meaningful US game.
He's especially helpless when playing in Latin America, so even if he does make the roster don't expect him to start in Panama.
• Graham Zusi: He played at right back for Arena in January, and he played at right back for Peter Vermes last weekend, and you're crazy if you think Arena won't constantly have an eye on the veteran former-winger:
Zusi's a gamer and obviously has fond memories of Panama. But I think the fanbase would be right to feel some version of upset to see the Sporting man at right back for more than a cameo in either game.
• Eric Lichaj: In a different universe Lichaj has 60+ caps over the last seven years, split just about evenly between right back and left back. The 28-year-old instead has just 11 caps (only three since 2011) despite playing more than 200 games for Premiership and Championship teams.
Arena says he's in contention for a spot, which is refreshingly sane and just. At no point in his USMNT or club career has Lichaj been a Yedlin-esque game-breaker, but the dude is a no-frills, mistake-free gamer. Despite his lack of reps with the current group, he'd be my preferred choice if Yedlin can't go.
We'll find out, a week from today, what Arena's thinking with regard to his roster. Bear in mind he'll probably call in more than 23 players, and that one of those – Jermaine Jones – is suspended for the Honduras game.
Also bear in mind that this summer's Gold Cup roster will likely be far more experimental than what we'll see in qualifiers. So hold up a bit on the likes of Lynden Gooch or Terrence Boyd or whoever your current overseas crush happens to be. What we have in the room, right now, is enough.
With that in mind, here's my prediction for the roster announcement, which is supposed to come on March 15:
G: Guzan, Howard, Nick Rimando
D: Brooks, Cameron, Lichaj, Yedlin, Zusi, Fabian Johnson, Omar Gonzalez, Steve Birnbaum
M: Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber, Darlington Nagbe, Dax McCarty, Sebastian Lletget, Kellyn Acosta
F: Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris