Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Geoff Cameron are back on the U.S. roster after lengthy illness and injury layoffs as coach Bruce Arena made large-scale changes hoping to spark the Americans to a rebound in World Cup qualifying.
The U.S. coach from 1998-2006, Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann in November after an 0-2 start in the final round of qualifying, and for the first competitive matches of his second stint he selected just 13 of the 26 players on Klinsmann’s final roster.
Six players earned selection with their performances during Arena’s January training camp: defenders Jorge Villafana and Walker Zimmerman; midfielders Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget and Dax McCarty; and 37-year-old goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Fourteen of the 24 players are from Major League Soccer, up from 10 on the November roster.
Arena said defenders DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj were going to be picked before they got hurt, and right back Timmy Chandler was omitted because he is suspended for the March 24 qualifier against Honduras in San Jose, California, due to yellow-card accumulation. Midfielder Jermaine Jones, also suspended for the next game, was among those selected and could play March 28 at Panama.
Last in the six-team hexagonal of the North and Central American and Caribbean region, the U.S. hopes to get at least four points in the two matches. The top three nations qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and the No. 4 team meets Asia’s fifth-place finisher in a playoff for another berth.
Arena intends to use Fabian Johnson at left midfield, where he plays for Borussia Moenchengladbach, leaving left back options to include 34-year-old DaMarcus Beasley and Villafana, who has never made a competitive international appearance. Michael Orozco is the most experienced right back.
Dempsey, 34 and a veteran of three World Cups, did not play after Aug. 21 last year because of an irregular heartbeat but went the distance in Seattle’s first two MLS games this season.
“Clint has a history that is almost second to none,” 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.”
Howard, who turned 38 on March 6 and was a U.S. starter at the last two World Cups, injured the adductor muscle in his right thigh Nov. 11 during the 2-1 loss to Mexico and had surgery six days later. After missing Colorado’s opener on March 4, he started last weekend and made several outstanding saves.
Brad Guzan, the top U.S. goalkeeper at last year’s Copa America, didn’t play for Middlesbrough from Aug. 28 until Jan. 2, but has made four club appearances since the start of this year.
Cameron, a defender and midfielder, strained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee on Oct. 22 playing for Stoke, returned as a late substitute on Feb. 26 and has played two full matches since.
Arena explained why he decided to leave Chandler off.
“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.”
Among those passed over by Arena were Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan, which could signal Arena intends to use 18-year-old Christian Pulisic in a central midfield role. Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum and Graham Zusi also were left off, and Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes is still recovering from a knee injury.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough, England), Tim Howard (Colorado), Nick Rimando (Salt Lake)
Defenders (8): John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston), Geoff Cameron (Stoke, England), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca, Mexico), Michael Orozco (Tijuana, Mexico), Tim Ream (Fulham, England), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna, Mexico), Walker Zimmerman (Dallas)
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (Dallas), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia), Michael Bradley (Toronto), Jermaine Jones (LA), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Moenchengladbach, Germany), Sebastian Lletget (LA), Darlington Nagbe (Portland), Dax McCarty (Chicago), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund, Germany)
Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore (Toronto), Clint Dempsey (Seattle), Jordan Morris (Seattle), Bobby Wood (Hamburg, Germany)