Kljestan is the answer to Arena’s “better passer” problem

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by JACK HAZZARD

After the dust had settled following his re-hiring as manager of the United States Men’s National Team, former Los Angeles Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena sat down with Major League Soccer’s Extra Time Radio (with Andrew Wiebe and David Gass) to discuss his future plans as the country’s newest head coach.

While analyzing the recent squads called up by former manager Jurgen Klinsmann, Arena stated that previous lineups needed “a better passer.”

“We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field who can deliver the right ball at the right time,” Arena added. “Who that is remains to be seen. There’s a couple of domestic players that are very good at that who we’ll look at in camp in January, and that to me is an area we’ve got to identify.”

There is no question that Arena is right. In past World Cup Qualifying contests, the United States struggled to create a cohesive threat through the middle. The blame could be partially placed on the players. However, most of the issue falls upon the positioning of long-term captain Michael Bradley. As Arena pointed out in the video, the Toronto FC midfielder is better suited as a defensive midfielder, not a leading attacker.

Then who should be the United States’ main central attacking threat?

Well … what about Kljestan?

If Arena is searching to find his squad “a better passer,” then he should look no further than Klinsmann’s most recent call-up from the New York Red Bulls. Since returning to Major League Soccer in 2015, the 31-year-old midfielder has been a force to be reckoned with. In his introduction year with the Red Bulls, Kljestan provided his side with 14 assists, ranking him fourth amongst the league’s leader. Following his successful 2015 season, the veteran number 10 continued his sharing ways. In 2016, Kljestan led Major League Soccer with a jaw-dropping 20 assists – five higher than runner-up Sebastian Giovinco. In fact, he was the first player to break the 20 assist mark in MLS since Carlos Valderrama did so in 2000.

This immense success has led to fans and pundits to clamor for Kljestan to start in the midfield for the United States. But does Bruce Arena think the same?

In his Extra Time Radio interview, the 65-year-old manager glossed over the possibility of starting Kljestan. Instead, he elected to discuss the possibility of using Sporting Kansas City midfielder, Benny Feilhaber.

“Benny’s played in a World Cup, he’s been in camp so he’s not an inexperienced player. I would tend to believe he’s going to get an opportunity,” Arena said. “I haven’t checked with him yet or with [SKC head coach] Peter Vermes and certainly I’ve placed a call into Peter and I’ll be discussing his players, of which Benny’s one.”

Much like Kljestan, Feilhaber has endured a long and dreadful hiatus from the United States Men’s National Team. However, the difference between the two is that Kljestan returned to the squad a few months earlier as well as participated in more international game time in recent years.

Although Feilhaber is not a bad shout, the in-form New Yorkeris the better fit for Arena’s new side. In the past two seasons, Kljestan has aggregated a total of 14 goals and 34 assists, whereas, Feilhaber has collected 17 goals and 28 assists (narrowly giving Kljestan a +3 advantage). In addition, in the previous two years that both Kljestan and Feilhaber have been in the Major League Soccer, the New York Red Bull has enjoyed greater domestic success. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Kljestan led his side to back-to-back Eastern Conference titles. On the opposite end, Feilhaber led Sporting KC to back-to-back early knockout stage defeats.

If Arena truly believes that there is a “passing” void in the United States lineup (which there is), he should put faith in Sacha Kljestan. With his prolific assist numbers and recent success, the 31-year-old midfielder stands out further than any other attacking American midfielder. And Kljestan’s attributes don’t end there. His competitiveness and leadership have helped shape the biting form of the Red Bulls midfield — another characteristic the U.S. National Team has sorely missed.

Put it all together, and the answer is clear. Bruce … Sacha is your man.