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U.S. victory crucial to World Cup hopes

United States
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Biggest question facing Arena's first U.S. squad: Who will play at outside-back?

Herculez Gomez breaks down Bruce Arena's USMNT roster and a few notable standouts who may have missed out.
The FC crew share their thoughts on how Bruce Arena will utilize Clint Dempsey for the upcoming U.S. World Cup qualifiers.
Former U.S. forward Herculez Gomez goes position by position to reveal his depth chart for the USMNT's qualifier against Honduras.

As the team prepares to face Honduras and Panama in two crunch World Cup qualifiers in the next two weeks, there were feel-good stories aplenty surrounding the roster announcement for the U.S. men's national team.

Clint Dempsey, having recovered from an irregular heartbeat that threatened to end his career, is back in the fold. So are goalkeeper Tim Howard and defender Geoff Cameron, who have recovered from groin and knee injuries, respectively.

But as with most rosters, there are questions as well. How will Dempsey be used? Who will replace Jermaine Jones in the U.S. midfield, given that he is suspended for the Honduras match? And perhaps the biggest of all: Who will be the outside-backs?

The last question is complicated by a number of factors. Both DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj are out injured. Arena also said in an interview on Fox Sports 1 that Fabian Johnson is "best suited to be in the midfield."

With fewer outside-back options, Arena, during a Q&A on Facebook, said he was considering playing with three in the back. That is a formation that failed miserably against Mexico in November, but Honduras figures to employ vastly different tactics than El Tri did. Arena is anticipating that Los Catrachos will play with three in the back, though it will look like five at times.

Geoff Cameron
With the U.S. thin at outside-back, Geoff Cameron likely will see time at right-back.

"I think they'll get great numbers in the back, be very tight defensively and look to get out on the break with three very explosive players up front," he said.

The U.S. team has a much greater comfort level with a four-man defense and will have just a couple days to get its defensive shape sorted out. That leaves one of DaMarcus Beasley or Jorge Villafana to man the left-back spot, and given Beasley's significant edge in experience, he'll likely get the nod.

The question mark is just as big at right-back. Michael Orozco and Cameron are the two primary options there. Cameron has been playing as a holding midfielder of late for Stoke City and has partnered well with John Brooks in the past, in particular at last summer's Copa America Centenario. But he has also shown well in the past at right-back for both club and country, and given the better depth at center-back -- where Omar Gonzalez, Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream are also in the squad -- it wouldn't be a surprise to see Cameron line up on the right side.

"We don't want to make a habit of moving players around a whole lot, but in this case, we'll probably look at [Cameron] as a center-back or a right-back," Arena said.

In midfield, the race to find Michael Bradley's partner goes on, and it counts as a surprise that both Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber -- among the best creative brains in the player pool -- were omitted entirely. Arena does have some other options, though they lack the combination of creativity and experience that both players provide.

After impressing in a return to the U.S. last fall, Sacha Kljestan did not receive a call-up to Bruce Arena's team.

Arena's choice will likely come down to how much risk he is willing to tolerate, given Honduras' likely tactical approach. If Arena goes more defensive, that could result in Alejandro Bedoya's playing in the spot or even Dax McCarty, though the latter seems more of a backup to Bradley. But Kellyn Acosta has been in scintillating form of late for FC Dallas and provides a two-way presence, while Sebastian Lletget impressed at the team's January camp.

Arena also noted the possibility of using Christian Pulisic in the center, while touting Darlington Nagbe and even Dempsey playing underneath. Given Arena's comment about not playing players out of position, Pulisic and Fabian Johnson will likely start out wide, leaving the remaining midfielders to fight it out. It will likely come down to one of Bedoya, Acosta or Lletget.

Playing Dempsey in midfield seems unlikely unless the U.S. finds itself needing a goal late in the game, at which point he could come in as a supporting player for the likely starting forward tandem of Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore or perhaps replacing one of those.

In goal, the return of Howard ought to give Arena and the U.S. a boost following his sharp performance against the New York Red Bulls last weekend. If Howard gets through this weekend's match against Minnesota United, it seems likely he'll get the nod.

"We'll see [Howard] the week of training in San Jose, and if he's in good form and feeling right, there's no reason to believe he's not going to play," Arena told FS1.

Of course, the biggest feel-good story of all will be if the U.S. can right its qualifying campaign with results in the next two games. Four points ought to do it.

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

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