NEW YORK — U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena is famous for his one-liners, so when asked Tuesday to define reality for the team he has taken over, he quipped: "We're not going to look like Barcelona."
To be clear, Arena believes the U.S. is a team more than capable of climbing out of the World Cup qualifying hole created by losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, but as he surveys the team he has inherited from Jurgen Klinsmann he sees one glaring need: an attacking midfielder to steer the attack.
"Generally in the world today there’s not that (many) real No. 10s," Arena told a group of reporters in Manhattan on Tuesday. "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."
Arena is no stranger to lacking a No. 10. He told Goal USA he never really had one during his first go-round as U.S. coach either. Players like Claudio Reyna and Landon Donovan provided different elements to the attack, but neither was a pure No. 10.
More than searching for a specific player to play that role, Arena wants his U.S. team to receive better and more effective distribution from the midfield, which was an issue in the November qualifying losses.
Before his firing, Klinsmann had turned to 18-year-old Christian Pulisic to try and handle such a role early in the 2-1 loss to Mexico. Sacha Kljestan had emerged as an option during September qualifiers, and is likely to be one of the players Arena considers going forward.
"There’s a couple of domestic players that are very good at that that we’ll look at in camp in January," Arena said. "That, to me, is an area that we’ve got to identify, and that’ll help identify how we play. Do we play with one striker, two strikers, do we play with three? How do we define our midfield shape based on that?
"I’m 90 percent sure we’ll play with a back four, but at the same time be prepared to play with three when need be," Arena said. "All those little things need to be fine-tuned, but we have to find someone in the center of midfield who can be a little bit more creative than I’ve seen."
When asked if he thought Pulisic could wind up playing that role in the near future, Arena sounded like he sees Pulisic remaining on the wing, where he plays for Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund.
"He’s still young," Arena said. "I think where Dortmund plays him he plays pretty well."
Another player who Klinsmann had tried in the attacking midfield role is Michael Bradley. Klinsmann and Bradley didn't see eye-to-eye on where Bradley should play for the U.S. Klinsmann believed Bradley should play in a more advanced role, as a box-to-box midfielder, while Bradley believed that at this point in his career his best position is as a deep-lying midfielder.
Arena agrees with Bradley.
"I think he’d be viewed as a No. 6," Arena said of Bradley.
One veteran standout who has been out of the picture since the Copa America is Clint Dempsey, who missed the second half of 2016 with a heart condition. When healthy, the 33-year-old Seattle Sounders star could step in and assume playmaking duties, but his future remains uncertain at this point.
"I actually tried to contact (Dempsey) yesterday and wasn't successful," Arena said. "I do want to talk to him, and I know our medical staff is in touch with the people in Seattle to try to determine where he's at. To be honest with you, I don't know at this point."
Other potential candidates include Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who fell out of the national team picture with Klinsmann in charge, and Darlington Nagbe, who has fallen out of favor in recent months. Lee Nguyen is another playmaker who has been in with the national team but didn't stick under Klinsmann.