Sacha Kljestan ready to fill U.S. attacking midfielder role

New York Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan said he is ready to step up his game to be thecreative, attack-minded midfielder that United States coach Bruce Arena is seeking.

Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as manager this past November,said his priority is in finding a playmaker who can consistently create scoring chances.

Kljestan, 31, told ESPN FC's Taylor Twellman that Arena has already encouraged him to fill that role.

"He said: 'Just like you play with the Red Bulls, come in and do your same thing here, and do your best to parlay that into starting and qualifying and helping this team going forward.'"

Captain Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones served as Klinsmann's go-to central midfielders during most of the German manager's five-plus years at the American helm.

Arena said the two veterans will still play a key role. But while both showed that they can contribute to the attack from the center of the field, both have shown themselves to be more defensively inclined.

Arena called 31 players into his January camp, whichwill conclude with friendlies against Serbia in San Diego on Jan. 29, as well as Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tenn. on Feb. 3.

The camp's timing means that no European-based players were called in as Arena prepares a squad fortwo World Cup qualifiers in late March -- the first on March 24 at home to Honduras, and then a road tilt in Panama. After losing its first two games of the final round hexagonal, the U.S. currently sits in last place.

Kljestan said that despite what he called an up-and-down MLS season, he thinks he can lead the national team.

"It gives me a ton of confidence coming in here feeling like a coach believes in me, feeling like I can be an important part of this team for the next year and a half," he said. "I feel like I'm at the height of my career to really contribute to the national team, be a guy that's counted on every game and can help set up plays in the attacking third.

"A lot of different people have said...that I was a late bloomer," he said. "Players always talk about being maybe 28-years-old and being in their prime, and I always thought I was few years behind everybody. Maybe that was mentally. Maybe that was also physically. I think I matured a lot as a player when I went to Europe.

"Then being back with the Red Bulls, Jesse [Marsch] has pushed me a lot. I think I went through a tough period last summer.He told me, 'If you want to help the Red Bulls win something, you need to be an MVP-type player in the league.'"

Kljestan said that teamwork and a winning mentality have also been Arena's messages at camp.

"We need to have that winning is a habit. And especially, we're the U.S. national team, when we play in CONCACAF, winning is our habit," Kljestan said.

Klinsmann had experimented with Kljestan, as well as Portland Timbers string-puller Darlington Nagbe and even 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund prodigy Christian Pulisic in the central midfield in 2016 as well and Kljestan feels he works well particularly with Bradley and Pulisic.

"We've been in and out since the Olympic team basically. It's been almost 10 years," Kljestan said of Bradley. "Every time we step on the field, we just understand each other.

"And then the same can be said for Christian Pulisic. When him and I just stepped on the training field together, he's just a good player, and he understands, and he sees the game fast, and he's easy to play with. Michael's just easy to play with."

With the U.S. at the bottom of the six-team regional CONCACAF group with eight games to play, Kljestan admitted he feels there is unfinished business.

"'Incomplete' is [a] good [way to describe it]. Sky's the limit -- I know that's cliche, but I really feel that way right now," he said.

The top three teams qualify for the World Cup, while the fourth will enter a two-legged intercontinental playoff against a team from the Asian confederation for one of the final spots in Russia.

Kljestan said he feels he can be confident about where he can contribute.

"I feel comfortable, confident, consistent," he said. "I feel like when I step on the field I'm not making amateur mistakes that you make when you're young, and you just have a better head on your shoulders. I feel comfortable on the ball. I feel like I'm one of the best players here."

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