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What will Clint Dempsey’s USMNT role be in 2017?

The Clint Dempsey debate received an unexpected variable in 2016. What’s his role going to be in 2017?

United States v Ecuador: Quarterfinal - Copa America Centenario Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Last year as the Copa America Centenario was being played, I wrote a discussion piece asking if it was time to reduce Clint Dempsey’s USMNT role. This was after the team’s opening match loss to Colombia. As Deuce does, he responded with several clutch goals that helped the team advance to the semifinals of that tournament. It always seems like Clint Dempsey thrives on people doubting him and questioning his spot on the national team.

But, the question still exists and will until he calls it quits on his USMNT time, whenever that may be. In September 2016 an unexpected and scary variable entered the equation. His diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat put a halt on his playing status for both the national team and the Seattle Sounders. In soccer, heart conditions or ailments are huge deals. While a normal person being diagnosed with arrhythmia wouldn’t be considered too serious, in soccer it could threaten a career.

Thankfully, Dempsey has been cleared by medical personnel to continue playing and has featured in the Sounders preseason preparations for the upcoming season. By all accounts it seems as if our favorite don’t-give-a-damn Texan will be back to his usual playing habits very soon.

While Bruce Arena has ruled out calling Deuce up for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers in March to let him get back up to speed with the Sounders, the second term manager has repeatedly stated that Dempsey is in his plans for the future when he’s back to full fitness. That begs the eternal question, what role will he play with the team once he returns?

The biggest concern with Clint Dempsey and the U.S. national team has always been that he has no true position and gives coaches a tactical headache as they try to fit him into their lineups. He’s not a true striker. He’s not an attacking midfielder. He’s not a winger. Deuce is just a soccer player who just simply does stuff and does it better than almost any American soccer player ever has.

So far in his two games since replacing Jurgen Klinsmann as manager, Arena has trotted out two separate formations, the 4-2-3-1 (4-3-3) and the 4-4-2. It’s very likely that these will be the two formations he chooses from for the duration of his time in charge. It’s really hard to put Dempsey into either formation without sacrificing some sort of positional structure. If he plays as the second striker in a 4-4-2 he drops too far into the midfield to collect possession. If you play him as a CAM in the 4-2-3-1 you sacrifice a true No. 10 option like Benny Feilhaber or Sacha Kljestan. The same goes for if you try to play him as the lone striker as it leaves Jozy Altidore or Bobby Wood on the outside looking in.

Inevitably Dempsey will be back and Arena will have to make a choice. Usually the choice has been what will we sacrifice in order to get Dempsey into the lineup? Now that he’s having to work himself back into the national team and getting up there in age, is the option for him to be an impact super-sub arising? Simple logic would say no. The argument will be — “He’s still one of our best players, he deserves to play.” — To that I have no retort. In his best form, he’s still one of the best players in the USMNT player pool. However, the fact remains that he doesn’t fit tactically. Is Arena the manager to say that tactical efficiency is worth more than getting the best players on the field? Dempsey can still help the team a lot as a role player coming off the bench to score a clutch goal.

As much as I’d love to play fantasy manager, both options seem good to me. Dempsey in the lineup is what we all know and have known for more than 10 years now. It just seems unthinkable to willingly relegate him to a super-sub role. But, as he gets older and the player pool evolves, that decision is going to have to be made eventually. Is that time now?

I’m sorry I don’t have answers to the question I’m asking. But, it’s worth discussing and could possibly be one of the biggest questions facing the national team as 2017 rolls on. What do you think about it? Is Dempsey a sure-fire starter once he’s fully fit? Or is it time to reduce his role and let him make an impact off the bench?