The World Cup has come and gone but it isn’t hard to beckon back a year and a half ago and remember that a man who ultimately was left off the World Cup roster was, for a brief respite in time, the toast of the proverbial town. Indeed, USMNT fans felt shaggy-haired Chivas USA attacking midfielder Sacha Kljestan was nearly a lock to be paired alongside Junior in the American midfield in South Africa. Kljestan had netted a hat trick against Sweden, been a force for club and played a composed and at times menacing central midfield for the Yanks early in qualifiers. There were very few reasons to doubt the young Californians game. He was poised on the ball, a fine short passer who appeared prepared to help the Yanks solve their decades long problem with keeping the ball, and he was, hat trick aside, good for a threatening run into the box or two a game that he could certainly make the most of as an adept finisher.
At The Yanks are Coming home offices, we were fully on board the Kljestan for ten-year American midfield force train. TYAC co-founder and senior writer Jon Levy, along with the rest of us, loved Kljestan’s flexibility (he can play effectively on the wing as well), his free kick ability (see the Sweden highlights), and his offensive mind for the game. We weren’t alone in drinking the kool-aid, either. Notable sources who slated Kljestan in as the starter alongside MB 90 included Ives and ESPN Soccernet’s Jeff Carlisle. And then, all of the sudden, things went terribly wrong.
Maybe it was the haircut—a Samsonesque situation where Kljestan removed skill along with his hair. Perhaps it was the failure in his run at Celtic, where he was passed over only moments after his Swedish hat-trick. Chivas USA and the Hoops couldn’t agree on a proper fee, and Kljestan returned to MLS, where he looked disinterested and disengaged. This run of apathetic club form coincided with a disastrous run for the USMNT, starting with a dreadful performance against Costa Rica on the road at the Saprissa that truly marked the moment most big name US soccer outlets, and quite possibly his own coach, turned on him. The Confederations Cup was no better—out of form at club, Kljestan looked overwhelmed and worse, frustrated both in face and match form. In fact, even though he was called into the final US training camp for South Africa, he never really seemed to recover from the red card he received in the Americans humbling 3-0 loss to Brazil in the Group Stages of that tournament. Turned away by Celtic, ushered to the sidelines by his national team, and never truly regaining his club form at Chivas, one wondered if Kljestan would matter again when discussing the US midfield.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, with depressing finality, wrote “There are no second acts in American lives.” A look at American sport provides reason to differ with the acclaimed novelist’s dreary sentiment. Kljestan regained confidence as the new MLS season began at Chivas, and parlayed a better run of form into the second best thing beyond a World Cup plane ticket— a move to Europe.
History suggests all moves to Europe by American players tend to hinge on the question of location—which club does the player go to? For Kljestan, the location couldn’t have been better. Belgium is a league that doesn’t share the same media-scrutiny as other European destinations yet it provides empirical examples of being a positive destination for developing players—see Gooch, Everton’s talented midfielder Marouane Fellani, and Man City defender Victor Kompany. His club within that league, Anderlecht, are the champions of that league and give Kljestan the opportunity to season his game in the toughest of settings—the European Champions League. Plus, there was the opportunity to play—which was clearly available from the moment he signed, as his new gaffer indicated he’d have an opportunity to start if he displayed the work-ethic expected. The pieces were in place for a second act.
Thus far, and I agree it is early to again hop on the bandwagon— the young Californian has delivered. Kljestan scored seven minutes into his Champions League debut, albeit against an overmatched against most-MLS sides Welsh team. He did, however, score on the road. He played a quality sixty today in the league opener, helping Anderlecht rescue three points after an early deficit. Indeed, the pieces are in place for a renaissance, if one can have a renaissance as a player still in the developmental stage of his career at twenty-four. Kljestan needs work in a couple areas—discipline, tackling and defense, ability to recognize when to play long passes and in deciding when to make his dangerous runs forward. These are all areas where high-level European practice and play should aid his development. And the more match play he receives, the better off he’ll be. This is great news for American soccer, at least in the opinion of this writer.
Kljestan provides the American midfield an attacking option that can help it. Bradley is a tremendous box-to-box player, and for the time being Dempsey and Donovan are the epicenter of the American attack, albeit on diagonal runs from width. Kljestan provides a Feilhaber-esque element—one that can allow the Yanks to cycle the ball more effectively through the center. A look at World Cup tape reminds us that the American attack was at its most effective when it deployed this tactic this summer, and Sacha, along with Feilhaber, makes that more possible. Certainly the American midfield depth chart is crowded—and no spot in 2014 is guaranteed outside MB 90 and a healthy Clint Dempsey—but Kljestan provides an option unique in American soccer—an attacking minded midfielder who can open up a locked center defense. We’ll need that to capitalize on what on depth alone ought to be the Yanks strongest cycle in history, and from early returns, the future looks bright. Hair or no hair- expect big things from Sacha Kljestan moving forward. Again.
In the mean time, you can just go play some games over at the Europa Casino. It’s fun and you might just win some dough.
Neil W. Blackmon is the Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and found on Twitter @nwb_usmnt.