It’s been more than 15 years since U.S. MNT head coach Bruce Arena has entered a World Cup Qualifier with stakes this high. Add in the fact that the U.S. boss will have only two training days with the full group prior to March 24, and the challenge only seems to grow in stature. To prepare, he and the coaching staff have been heavily focused on assembling the most capable group possible for the critical games against Honduras and Panama.
After nearly four months of scouting, a productive January Camp, two friendlies and several thousand miles crisscrossing the Atlantic, the stage was set Wednesday when Arena named a 24-player roster that will gather in San Jose to prepare for USA-Honduras, presented by Volpi Foods, and the team’s away qualifier four days later in Panama.
“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 told ussoccer.com.
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Entering the camp with the goal of getting three points at home against Honduras and a positive result in Panama, experience is at the forefront of the U.S. roster: a total of 19 players carry previous World Cup Qualifying caps, while 10 of those have featured 12 or more times. Arena has also balanced the team with youth – seven players are 24 and under, while four field players will be looking for their first experience in a World Cup Qualifier.
“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.”
Clint Dempsey Returns
Clint Dempsey’s return to the U.S. roster was one of the highlights of Wednesday’s announcement. Sitting second on the MNT’s World Cup Qualifying appearance list with 36, Dempsey returns to the fold for the first time since last summer’s Copa America Centenario after an irregular heartbeat forced him out of action at the end of August.
Having worked closely with the medical staffs from Seattle Sounders FC and U.S. Soccer, Dempsey was cleared to return to game action this preseason and started the Major League Soccer campaign off well by tallying in Seattle’s 2-1 defeat at Houston Dynamo on March 3.
“Clint has a history that is almost second to none,” Arena said about the MNT’s second all-time leading goal scorer. “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.”
January Camp Winners
Thirteen players on the roster were part of the January Camp, and in highlighting those that showed well during the early-year gathering, Arena pointed to potential World Cup Qualifying debutants Sebastian Lletget, Dax McCarty, Jorge Villafaña and Walker Zimmerman as well as Kellyn Acosta as the big winners.
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“We believe in those players,” Arena said. “The common denominator there, with the exception of Dax, is they’re young players that should have the opportunity to play for the U.S. National Team a lot down the road. We’re trying to have the right balance on this roster and also look down the road, and I think these guys are exciting prospects for our program.”
Though Arena originally named Brad Guzan to his 24-player squad on March 15, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper withdrew on Thursday with he and his wife expecting to welcome their second child in the coming days.
San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper David Bingham will replace Guzan and join veterans Tim Howard and Nick Rimando in making up the MNT’s goalkeeping corps for this camp.
After overcoming a right adductor fracture suffered during the MNT’s 2-1 defeat to Mexico last November, Howard returned to action this past weekend, making seven saves in the Colorado Rapids’ 1-0 loss vs. New York Red Bulls. Meanwhile, Rimando and Bingham have seen action through the first two weeks of the M.L.S. season with Real Salt Lake and San Jose, respectively.
Why 24 Players?
In naming a 24-player roster, the MNT staff accounted for the fact that LA Galaxy midfielder Jermaine Jones will serve a one-game suspension against Honduras but will be available for the March 28 clash at Panama.
Defender Timmy Chandler is also suspended for the Honduras match, but the decision was made not to have the German-based right back travel from Europe just to be available for 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.”