'We’re behind the eight ball': Bruce Arena on his USMNT challenge

The returning U.S. boss gave assembled media a clear picture of how he wants to take the U.S. forward. Jeff Kassouf was on hand.

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK – Among the many things Bruce Arena made clear, the most obvious is the urgency of the next four months.

We’re fighting for our lives starting March 24. We’re behind the eight ball.

- Arena

“Let’s be honest: There’s not going to be a whole lot of new faces,” the returning head coach of the U.S. men’s national team told a small group of reporters on Tuesday. “We’re fighting for our lives starting March 24. We’re behind the eight ball. Coming out of the gates with two losses, you don’t have a whole lot of time to be experimenting with players.”

Arena’s second stint in charge of the national team is starting on decidedly different terms. This time, the team’s boss from 1998-2006 has come back to right a wayward ship. Right now, all that matters is that March 24 home game against Honduras – a must-win in the final round of World Cup qualifying after losses home to Mexico and away to Costa Rica spelled the end of Jurgen Klinsmann.

The big-picture ideas of fixing youth development and the American system will have to wait. Asked about them, Arena said bluntly, “2019, I’m not worried about.” His contract runs through 2018, and the next U.S. training camp, set to begin around Jan. 8, will feature mostly familiar, domestic-based players.

But there are, of course, areas which need improvement within this U.S. team. On Tuesday, Arena clearly defined places that are open for competition as the Americans look to get back on track toward Russia 2018.

The search for a No. 10

“There’s a couple of domestic players that are very good at that, that we’ll look at in camp in January."

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The United States isn’t a breeding ground for all-world No. 10s (and it isn’t alone in that camp, either), but few seemed to get a proper chance under Klinsmann. Sacha Kljestan has only in the past two months reemerged with the U.S. after an MVP-caliber season with the New York Red Bulls, and Benny Feilhaber’s falling out with Klinsmann is well-documented.

As Arena assesses his options, this key element is atop his list. It’s one he’ll need to address immediately, with Jermaine Jones suspended for the next qualifier.

“Generally, in the world today, there’s not that real No. 10,” Arena explained. “Some countries have it, some don’t. We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field that can deliver the right ball at the right time. Who that is remains to be seen.

“There’s a couple of domestic players that are very good at that, that we’ll look at in camp in January. That, to me, is an area we’ve identified. And that will help establish how we play.”

Will Arena’s team play with one striker? Two or three? What will the shape be in midfield. That, he said, will come down to who seizes that playmakers’ role. Finding that player, Arena emphasized, is a must.

“We have to find someone in the center of midfield who can be a little bit more creative than I’ve seen.”

That certainly sounds like good news for Kljestan and Feilhaber, in particular, whose names were brought up on Tuesday and in Arena’s introductory conference call last week.

“Benny’s played in a World Cup,” Arena said Tuesday. “He’s been in camp, so he’s not an inexperienced player. I would tend to believe that he’s going to get an opportunity.”

Where would that leave Jones? Arena said that Jones “certainly still has something to offer,” but emphasized that the out-of-contract 35-year-old needs to find a club.

And then, there’s the age-old debate of Michael Bradley, and what, exactly is the U.S. captain’s best position …

NEXT: The right role for Bradley