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Clint Dempsey may have to start in must-win World Cup qualifier

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Bobby Wood’s injury has left Bruce Arena with some tough choices.

Copa America - United States vs. Ecuador: Photos Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

Clint Dempsey’s status within the United States national team has been on quite a roller-coaster over the past few months.

First we expected Dempsey to at least get invited to January camp. After it was revealed he’d stay with the Sounders, head coach Bruce Arena strongly hinted that the USMNT would be playing the upcoming World Cup qualifiers without their second-leading all-time scorer. But after looking strong in his first two MLS games, Arena decided to bring in Dempsey in after all, but suggested it would only be in a reserve role.

The situation has continued to develop, so don’t be surprised if Dempsey starts Friday’s virtual must-win qualifier against Honduras. MLSsoccer.com, ESPN and Fox Soccer have all recently suggested Dempsey is the most obvious choice.

The reason is pretty straightforward: Presumed starter Bobby Wood is out with a bulging disc and most seem to think Arena is going to want to start Jozy Altidore along with another forward.

Assuming that’s accurate — and Arena doesn’t shock everyone by using more of a 4-2-3-1 — that leaves Dempsey competing with the likes of Jordan Morris and Chris Wondolowski for the start. While Dempsey is still recovering his fitness after missing more than six months with heart-related health issues, both of the other forwards have their own baggage.

Even putting aside the ankle injury that has kept him limited during the early days of USMNT training, Morris is still relatively inexperienced at the international level. He has just three starts for the national team and all of them have come in friendlies. Throwing him into a virtual must-win World Cup qualifier — even one at home — is asking a lot.

Wondolowski is at least fully fit, but his record with the USMNT is hardly sparkling. While his 11 international goals in less than 1,300 minutes look reasonably good on paper, the reality is that his only goals in competitive action came during the 2013 Gold Cup against the likes of Belize and Cuba. He’s also been used sparingly since his infamous 2014 World Cup miss and his solitary start in last summer’s Copa America — in the 4-0 semifinal loss to Argentina — was roundly panned before he was pulled in the 58th minute.

Given all this, Arena can be forgiven for looking to Dempsey, a player with whom he has a long and storied history. It was Arena who gave Dempsey his first cap, his first World Cup invitation, and ultimately the freedom to become arguably the best offensive player the USA has ever produced. Dempsey also has an extensive history playing alongside Altidore, as the two have played together dozens of times over the past seven years or so.

Oh, and there’s also the reality that no one has the pedigree to match Dempsey. Among Dempsey’s 52 international goals are 14 goals in World Cup qualifiers, four more in the World Cup and 36 in competitive matches. Scoring in these kinds of games is exactly how Dempsey has built his reputation.

It’s entirely possible that Arena could throw a curveball and use someone like Cristian Pulisic in a central attacking role and keep Dempsey on the bench. But given their history and the stakes, Dempsey seems like a safe bet.