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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup

Does Bruce Arena have no choice but to start Clint Dempsey up front?

When Clint Dempsey was named to the U.S. national team roster last week for a pair of World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama, attention immediately centered on his best role.

Given that he only recently returned to action after missing the last four months of 2016 due to an irregular heartbeat, the most likely scenario had him being used off the bench. But the fact that he started the first three games of the 2017 MLS season for Seattle Sounders FC -- scoring two goals in the process -- meant that a starting role couldn't be ruled out.

Now, manager Bruce Arena might not have any choice.

Bobby Wood, perhaps the most in-form striker in the U.S. pool, has been ruled out of both matches due to a back injury, while Dempsey's club teammate, Jordan Morris, sustained an ankle injury in Sunday's 3-1 victory over the New York Red Bulls and was a notable absentee from Monday's training session in San Jose.

Arena tried to downplay that, stating that Morris was doing a regeneration session back at the team hotel, and also noted how Dempsey and the Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan didn't exert themselves too much either.

But the announcement on Monday evening that San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski had been added to the roster speaks to the extent that the corps of American forwards has been depleted. As such, it may be that Arena's best option is to have Dempsey in the starting XI.

But assuming for the moment that Morris is healthy enough to start, the question of Dempsey's best role still stands, even with Wood out of the picture. At first glance, a substitute position seems perfect. Even though he's played all but one minute of Seattle's three matches, the sense is that his long layoff -- his appearance in the opener against Houston was his first outing since last August -- would still preclude him from playing the full match.

His experience also seems suited to a late appearance off the bench if the U.S. is in need of a goal, while Morris' speed would stretch the Honduran defense and his presence would allow Arena's side to be more effective with its defensive pressing.

Clint Dempsey has scored 52 goals in 130 games for the United States.

However, there is also a belief that Dempsey would be less than thrilled at being left on the bench.

"Clint's not the type of guy who wants to be a sub," said ESPN FC TV analyst Steve Nicol, who managed Dempsey at the New England Revolution "Clint wants to play, and Clint will be making sure that he's showing Bruce, No. 1 that he wants to play, and No. 2 that he's fit enough. When I say he won't be happy I'm not saying he'll be a pain; he'll just be disappointed he's not playing because that's the way he is."

However, ESPN TV analyst Taylor Twellman thinks that his former teammate's health issues may have changed his perspective. 

"If his heart issue had never happened, I'm not sure Clint would have found it easy to accept a substitute role," said Twellman. "Now in saying that, I think just hearing him talk, and catching up with him at MLS Cup, he's always had a passion and a love for the game, and I think going through all of that has made him realize how much he wants to go out on the right note. If Clint is willing to play a substitute role, then he could play himself onto that World Cup roster in Russia."

Dempsey, for his part, seems to understand his current limitations, telling the Associated Press last week that he wasn't quite at the level needed to play an entire World Cup qualifier and that he would adopt whatever role was asked of him.

"I'm not at 100 percent I would say but I'm getting close," said Dempsey. "Every 90 minutes I get under my belt here I'm feeling more comfortable."

There are also practical reasons for having Dempsey on from the start. For all the talk of Morris' ability to stretch defenses, it seems likely that Honduras will adopt a defend-and-counter strategy, the better to utilize the athleticism of attackers like Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis.

That means there will be less space for the U.S. to exploit, thus requiring a bit more guile for the home side to find a breakthrough. And that is precisely the skill set Dempsey has: If he can only last 60-70 minutes, at least his time on the field will be maximized.

A reduced role for Morris would also give his ankle more time to heal, leaving Arena free to unleash him four days later against a Panama side less inclined to bunker in.

There is also the longstanding relationship Dempsey has with Jozy Altidore. The two were the U.S. team's go-to strike partnership during the last World Cup cycle and it seems likely that time hasn't dulled the pair's understanding.

"If I'm the coach, and Wood isn't fit, then I'm playing Clint," said Nicol. "He's clearly fit, you're talking experience, someone who has been there, done that, seen it. If you give him an opportunity, he's going to score. I can't really see how if you're going to play with two up front, how you don't play Clint alongside Altidore."

Altidore could be deployed as a lone striker, especially with the glut of midfielders at Arena's disposal. But that is a formation in which the U.S. has historically struggled to create chances; a two-forward alignment maximizes the Americans' attacking heft.

With the U.S. desperate for World Cup qualifying points, who better than Dempsey, whose record of scoring in big games is arguably unparalleled in national team history, to be given the chance to add another vital goal to his resume?

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.


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