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U.S. Hot List: Christian Pulisic in top form, Tim Howard returns in style

After being sidelined with a serious heart condition, Clint Dempsey returned to the field, and had an immediate impact.

The first part of Bruce Arena's selection process for a critical World Cup qualifier against Honduras on March 24 and another in Panama City four days later is nearly complete, with the U.S. coach to name his roster for both games Wednesday afternoon.

The second part, of course, requires Arena to settle on a lineup for the match against Los Catrachos in San Jose, California. With just one more weekend of club games left for him to assess the sharpness of his players, here's a look at how 14 candidates for the starting XI and/or the larger squad are trending.

Warming up

Christian Pulisic, MF, Borussia Dortmund (German Bundesliga)

Why he's here: Pulisic became the youngest Dortmund player to score in the Champions League when he hit the Round of 16 series decider (after earlier adding an assist) in last week's 4-0 rout of Benfica. On Tuesday, he bagged another winner, this time against third-tier Sportfreunde Lotte in the German Cup.

What this means: Pulisic is in blistering form, with three goals and two assists in his last four games. And after being relatively quiet in the November qualifiers, you can be sure that the 18-year-old native of Hershey, Pennsylvania, will be looking to put his stamp on these matches. 

Tim Howard, GK, Colorado Rapids (MLS)

Why he's here: Howard was stellar in his first match back from a groin tear that required surgery and sidelined him for four months, making seven saves -- some of them of the brilliant variety -- in Saturday's 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls.

What this means: No national teamer boosted his stock more over the last week than Howard. Assuming he can avoid any injury setback this week, "there's no reason to believe we won't call him into camp," Arena said Sunday during Fox's LA Galaxy- Portland Timbers broadcast. We'll go one further: Howard is now the odds-on favorite to start in San Jose. 

Tim Howard
Tim Howard was outstanding in his return from a groin injury for Colorado, and now Bruce Arena has a decision to make in goal.

Clint Dempsey, FW, Seattle Sounders (MLS)

Why he's here: Dempsey played 90 minutes -- on the punishing turf inside Montreal's Olympic Stadium, no less -- for the second consecutive week, scoring a late goal that probably should've counted but didn't because of Jordan Morris' phantom handball. 

What this means: With the national team's active scoring leader rounding back into form following a scary eight-month layoff because of a heart ailment, bringing the 34-year-old back in is a no-brainer. And it would surely boost morale, even if Dempsey is more likely to come off the bench this month.

John Brooks, DF, Hertha Berlin (German Bundesliga)

Why he's here: The big center-back has started 17 of Hertha's 20 matches in all competitions since Oct. 14, keeping his hometown team in contention for a UEFA Champions League spot.

What this means: It's no secret that Brooks struggled during the November losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. But the Berlin native will have a clean slate under Arena, who knows that the rangy 24-year-old is perhaps his best defender when he's confident and locked in.

Matt Besler, DF, Sporting Kansas City (MLS)

Why he's here: Although he missed the January camp after offseason ankle surgery, the 30-year old Besler played 180 minutes through his club's first two matches, during which SKC didn't concede a goal.

What this means: Now that he's fit, look for the 2014 World Cup vet to reclaim his spot behind Brooks on Arena's left center-back depth chart. Besler also offers emergency cover at left-back, a position he manned capably in three important games last year.  

Brad Guzan, GK, Middlesbrough (English Premier League)

Why he's here: He has made just seven appearances for Boro all season, but Guzan saved his best performance for Saturday's 2-0 FA Cup quarterfinal loss to mighty Manchester City. "Their goalkeeper was amazing," City coach Pep Guardiola said after Guzan made several key second-half stops.

What this means: Arena could easily go with Guzan as his No.1 if he has any doubts about Howard's fitness after such a long layoff. Either way, this is a selection headache the coach will be happy to have, as the U.S. goalkeeping situation looks a lot better than it did a week ago.

Eric Lichaj, DF, Nottingham Forest (English League Championship)

Eric Lichaj
Eric Lichaj has never been a key player for the U.S. but he could get his chance with DeAndre Yedlin injured.

Why he's here: With Timmy Chandler suspended and DeAndre Yedlin (more on him below) injured, Lichaj -- who has started 34 consecutive games in all competitions for Nottingham Forest this season -- could be the next man up at right-back.   

What this means: Assuming Geoff Cameron plays central defense or in a holding role, you'd think a match-fit natural defender like Lichaj would get the nod over recently converted midfielder Graham Zusi in games of this magnitude. 

Dax McCarty, MF, Chicago Fire (MLS)

Why he's here: McCarty made a strong impression on Arena during the January camp, and he was excellent in the Fire's 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday.

What this means: With veteran destroyer Jermaine Jones suspended for the Honduras game, Arena needs an extra body in defensive midfield. McCarty offers experience, discipline and a cool head, which could give him the edge over younger options such as FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta or Reading's Danny Williams.

Walker Zimmerman, DF, FC Dallas (MLS)

Why he's here: Big, young (he's 23) fast and smart, Zimmerman was excellent in last month's friendly against Jamaica, his senior debut, and one of the big winners during January camp overall. 

What this means: Don't be shocked if Zimmerman sneaks onto the squad. 

Cooling down

DeAndre Yedlin, DF, Newcastle (English League Championship)

Why he's here: The 23-year-old from Seattle remains out with a leg injury.

DeAndre Yedlin has impressed at Newcastle but a recent injury looks like it will knock him out of March's CONCACAF qualifiers.

What this means: It's probably safe to say that Arena is planning as if Yedlin won't be available during this international window.

DaMarcus Beasley, DF, Houston Dynamo (MLS) 

Why he's here: The 34-year-old, four-time World Cup vet sat out the Dynamo's weekend win over Columbus a week after suffering a leg injury in the dying moments of Houston's season opener against Seattle.

What this means: Beasley was superb in the 2-1 win against the Sounders before getting hurt. That, and his vast qualifying experience, had Arena considering him for the starting left-back job. Seeing Fabian Johnson in a midfield role now seems less likely.

Steve Birnbaum, DF, D.C. United (MLS)

Why he's here: Birnbaum struggled in DCU's 4-0 loss at New York City FC and might find himself left off the squad entirely now that fellow central defenders Besler, Brooks, Cameron and Omar Gonzalez are all healthy. 

What this means: Arena said in January that the 26-year-old needs more reps at the international level, so there's a chance Birnbaum might have to wait for July's Gold Cup to add to his 11 caps.

Benny Feilhaber, MF, Sporting Kansas City (MLS)

Why he's here: He failed to leapfrog Sacha Kljestan in the playmaking role during January camp, and Feilhaber has been quiet through the first two weeks of the domestic season.

What this means: It's hard to see both Feilhaber and Kljestan making Arena's roster, especially with Darlington Nagbe, if he's called in, also capable of playing on the wing.

Nick Rimando, GK, Real Salt Lake (MLS)

Why he's here: Through no fault of his own, but any chance of RSL's backbone starting against Honduras ended when both Guzan and Howard played (and played so exceptionally) on Saturday.

What this means: With youngster Ethan Horvath idle in Belgium, expect Rimando to reclaim his role as the U.S. No. 3.

Gyasi Zardes, MF/FW, LA Galaxy (MLS)

Why he's here: Zardes (knee) missed the first two games of the Galaxy's season and while he's close to returning, he, like Yedlin, more than likely ran out of time to make this roster.

What this means: This is the second significant injury Zardes has suffered in the last six months; a broken foot prematurely ended his 2016 season. The U.S. has and will continue to miss him. When the hard-running Zardes first got hurt, he had played more minutes for the Americans in 2015 and 2016 than anyone besides captain Michael Bradley.

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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