MILLBRAE, Calif. (AP) — Bruce Arena is preparing for a pair of critical World Cup qualifiers this month uncertain about the availabilities of forward Clint Dempsey, defender Geoff Cameron and goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Arena spoke Monday with Cameron, who told him he was a bit sore after playing a full match for Stoke on Saturday for the first time since injuring a knee in October. While Arena is thrilled Dempsey has returned to the field for Seattle after dealing with an irregular heartbeat, the U.S. coach will be "very cautious" in determining Dempsey's national team status before the March 24 qualifier against Honduras at the San Jose Earthquakes' Avaya Stadium.
After losing their first two games in the final round of World Cup qualifying, the Americans fired Jurgen Klinsmann and brought back Arena, their coach from 1998-2006. His first competitive match is against the Catrachos, and the U.S. plays four days later at Panama.
"Well, I don't think we're hanging on by a fingernail yet, but we're getting close," Arena said Monday. "I don't think we're there yet, but I think they're getting a plier out."
Arena might lean toward using more players who have been abroad and are deeper into their seasons than those in Major League Soccer, whose seasons began last weekend, though the roster might be close to an even split of players from abroad and MLS.
"I've always felt the team would qualify for the next World Cup," said Arena, in the Bay Area for CONCACAF's announcement Tuesday of Gold Cup groups. "Now, it's obviously a little bit more challenging, but it can be done."
Howard is still recovering from leg surgery in November and missed Colorado's opener last weekend.
"I'll follow their lead," Arena said of the Rapids, "as well as following the lead of Seattle with Clint."
"Between now and when the players report, there's going to be a lot of issues, so we have a Plan A, a B and a C, and in a lot of cases we're probably going to go to Plan C," Arena said. "Two players, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, may not be available. It may be the case with Geoff. They've all been good players for the U.S. team. We'd like to have them all. The reality of the situation is that that's not likely."
The Americans will be without Timmy Chandler and Jermaine Jones for the Honduras match, both suspended because of yellow-card accumulation. In the November qualifiers, the Americans lost to Mexico 2-1 at home and 4-0 at Costa Rica.
"If they got a result against Mexico and lost to Costa Rica, then you'd believe everything's not so tense? That's the way it is," Arena said. "There are eight games left. If there were two games left, I'd really be concerned. But I think we can close the gap real quick, or we can continue to, I guess then, start hanging on by our fingernails."
Fabian Johnson scored two goals Saturday for Borussia Moenchengladbach and has been playing midfield, yet Arena is unsure whether he will be better suited at there or left back for the qualifiers.
Arena has been traveling regularly to get to know almost everyone from a pool of about 40 players from which the U.S. will build its roster. The roster announcement is likely March 15.
"I've visited all the countries you can visit," he said before specifying Germany, England, Mexico and parts of the U.S.
Arena expects the Americans to have no issues once they reconvene — focused on one goal and not whether they are U.S.-born.
"All I know is they have that U.S. passport," he said, while noting in the current political climate "today, everything's crazy, what are you going to do?"
Howard raised concern in January about the national pride of American players born elsewhere.
"Those are the little games we don't get involved in. We get together as a team and we're a team when we show up," Arena said. "Inside teams it's a lot different than you think. I don't think they're having little verbal wars with each other. They're going to be a team. They want to win. They're going to all do their job and play for each other and represent our country in the right way. That's what I'm anticipating."
NOTES: The U.S. Soccer Federation announced last weekend that its membership adopted a limit of three four-year terms for president and vice president and four four-year terms for directors, with the provision current officers can run one more time. Arena figures Sunil Gulati, elected to a third four-year term in 2014, will seek one more. "I would think that he'll give it strong consideration. I think he loves his job, I think he loves the responsibility," Arena said. "The federation has grown tremendously under the leadership of Sunil and (secretary general) Dan Flynn. I don't see any reason why it'll change."