During Tuesday's roundtable, Bruce Arena talked at length about his plans for the USMNT going forward (covered here). One of the specific issues he identified was the need for someone who is a particularly skilled passer in midfield.
Bruce Arena says #USMNT player pool ~50-60 right now, ~30 of which will be in Jan camp. One of big needs, he says: Better passer in midfield— Jeff Kassouf (@JeffKassouf) November 29, 2016
Arena repeated the need for a midfielder to distribute the ball effectively in midfield and take the role of the 10 during an interview with the staff of MLS.com's podcast, ExtraTime Radio. Clearly, Arena feels this is a bit of a priority.
At this point, we need to ask ourselves a very important question: What does Bruce Arena mean when he talks about finding that clear 10? Well, the position and role of the player wearing the number 10 has varied over time (take a look at this good video series from MLS's website that goes over the history and tactics of the position), but we happen to have one thing that might just give us a clear idea of what Arena's looking for. 10 years ago, when Arena oversaw his last game with the USMNT to conclude the disastrous 2006 World Cup, he fielded a midfielder with a renowned passing ability who wore the number 10: Claudio Reyna. Top Drawer Soccer actually had a great article covering Reyna and how Arena used him. To summarize, Arena deployed Reyna as a deep midfielder who controlled the speed of play and recycled possession.
He was so influential that he carved out an entire national team style around his skill set – calm, measured, tempo-driven and utterly unflappable. Reyna is the best ball control center midfielder in American history, and every national team he played on followed his lead.
Without him, the USMNT have been missing a vital cog and had to transition to alternative, more reactive tactics. Bradley was forced to play a game that relied on taking advantage of transitions. Klinsmann's reign lacked a consistent tactical approach, but the German largely found success playing very defensive and reactive soccer. Anointing a proper successor to Reyna would give the USMNT a large number of tactical options and potential styles of play, while significantly advancing the program forward. Looking at Arena's comments, this looks likes it lines up with what he imagines a 10 to be. Specifically, that "better passer in midfield". This isn't a classic number 10 who plays centrally and creates goals from an advanced position. This is somebody who can dictate and control the play by opening up the field from the center of the field.
Next, we must ask who this player could possibly be. Who has the skill set to help dictate the tempo and maintain possession from the center of the park?
The most obvious pick from the current group of established USMNT veterans is Michael Bradley. Indeed, Bradley appeared to be Klinsmann's choice for this role, first as an attacking midfielder, and then as a deep-lying tempo-keeping holding midfielder. Neither has really worked out, and it looks from that tweet above that Arena isn't looking to utilize Bradley this way.
Arena appears to have similarly ruled out Pulisic, pointing out that he's a quite effective winger for Dortmund. Kljestan and Feilhaber have both been mentioned as having a chance under Arena, but neither really plays the role of tempo-keeper. Both are more similar to more classic number 10's that look to hold possession and create high up the field. Same for Lee Nguyen, though the New England Revolution man is perhaps even more of an aggressive player. Nagbe isn't that classic attacking midfielder, but nor is he a tempo-setting holding man.
That leaves only players who have had limited to no experience with the senior national team. There's Wil Trapp, who is a smallish, deep-lying long-ball expert. Dillon Powers hasn't been with the national team at all and plays higher up the field. And, finally, there's Gedion Zelalem, the Arsenal teenager, yet to make a start with the North London side. Of all the players named, it's probably only Zelalem that resembles Reyna's talents. I personally would be shocked if the youthful Zelalem ended up being the choice.
Either way, there's not a whole lot of options. Arena may be forced to adapt and go with a more classical number 10 (or maybe that's what he has meant all along) paired with two holding players behind (in which case, I seriously hope the eventual choice is Lee Nguyen). Arena may decide that someone like Kljestan or Feilhaber fills the role. Or, perhaps he may find that pairing Trapp and Bradley gives enough of a passing range and bite into that midfield. While the problems plaguing that midfield may have been identified, solving them almost certainly won't be as easy.