July 2010

Kljestan Begins 2014 Quest With Purpose in Belgium

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 nwb@yanksarecoming.com and found on Twitter @nwb_usmnt.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Brian

    Vincent Kompany, who is Belgian if I am not mistaken.

    I wouldn’t exactly call the Belgian League a “feeder” league (if that’s what you’re trying to say), but I think a change of scenery can only do Sacha’s career some good.

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    Yes Vincent, not Victor. And he is Belgian– had a big U-20 World Cup, etc.

    And no– the argument wasn’t that it was a feeder league. I was simply pointing out that young players have developed well there– and partly because with a good enough club it gives a young guy a chance to play (not simply train for) the highest level competitions. ‘
    Anderlecht has already given Kljestan a Champions League start- so in many ways it is better than a simple change of scenery– it is an ideal spot to grow and get better. Much better than if he were plugging along at Wolves, for example.

  • Brian

    I figured that wasn’t what you are arguing, but the use of the word “empirical” there made me think you describing a treasure trove of players moving on to big time top flight football.

    For your Wolves/Anderlecht comparison, I wanted to argue a counter-point (though I don’t whole-heartedly disagree with you).

    For example, Player X at the University of Cincinnati would have played in a BCS bowl (lets equate BCS to CL for the time being), but plays the majority of the remaining schedule against the Big East (the Belgian Football conference, if you will). Player X gets 4 quarters tops the whole season playing against the best, and I can’t see Anderlecht lasting too long in the CL. Additionally, a CL cap against a Welsh team hardly qualifies in my opinion.

    Player Y, meanwhile takes his knocks while playing for Auburn (mid-level SEC team) . He doesn’t go to the BCS, but he’s playing against the best week in and week out.

    When it comes time to evaluate players X and Y for the NFL Draft (USMNT), at least 75% of the time Player Y is going to be more developed because he’s getting his head bashed in week after week by the best the sport has to offer (or close to it).

    Granted, these are two completely different sports, but I think the parallels are applicable. I am of the camp that Jozy needs to fight it out at Villareal (hell I’d prefer him to come back to the EPL this year) and take his shots from the best. Trial by fire is the best education and preparation.

    I threw that together very quickly, as I am sitting at work right now. It is probably full of holes like a block of swiss, but I’d love to hear what you or anyone else has to say or argue on the topic.

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    Yeah it is tough for me to argue with a thought experiment that makes SEC Football comparisons. I too, think the SEC is easily the best way to prepare a young player for the NFL, and history bears out plenty of role players in that league that go onto fine careers, even better than All-Conference kids from say the Big East, or Conference USA, the like. Here’s the rub:

    For all of those guys, there are several who excel in situations at the “other” schools. Maybe it has to do with their emotional makeup, or maybe it is the style of their game (a blue chip classic I-formation tailback probably still goes to Ohio State and not Florida, even though linebackers are slower in the big 10 and defensive schemes aren’t as advanced, for example).

    I think Kljestan is a guy who (like most players, but to a greater degree) needs personal confidence to continue to develop. Say he plays woefully getting his brain beat in at Wolves week in, week out. Maybe he falls out of favor. That’s bad for his development, regardless of the extra quality fixtures. And don’t get too carried away– there are more Vanderbilts in the EPL than there are in the SEC.

    At Anderlecht, he’ll probably play group stages Champions League ball, then they parachute into Europa. That’s several chances against high-level competition. Sure- the best you get in league is Standard Liege, but at least he’ll have a chance to start against a Real Madrid or a Roma in the Champions League, and maybe with added confidence from his weaker games, he’ll play well. So I think you take the good with the bad.

    Some USMNT kids– Mo Edu comes to mind immediately– I think will gain more by testing themselves in a physical, highly competitive environment from the off– but Kljestan seems to need a bit more coddling and nurturing. That’s fine, as long as when adversity does come along– the experiences of losing in the CHampions League and Europa make him better for it.

    Excellent points and discussion though.

  • Brian

    You make a great point about the new CL format with the Europa league. He will get much more exposure of the kind you are speaking because of those changes.

    Hopefully, this is what is best for Kljestan, and more importantly the USMNT.

    PS. I love the Big 10 hate, haha.