Neil W. Blackmon
Sacha Kljestan, now in the best run of form in his life, has come a long way. Then again, he’s used to it. It wasn’t that long ago that Kljestan was a lightly recruited midfielder who got nary a look o US development teams as a teenager, most coaches thinking he was too small and skinny to make much of an impact on a larger stage. Kljestan defied the odds– shining at Seton Hall and parlaying that into an MLS contract with Chivas USA. As an “oh-by-the-way” to the various American youth coaches who disregarded his talents as a teenager, Kljestan also performed magnificently at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, slicing and dicing through the Netherlands midfield with midfield mate Michael Bradley. It was a game the US should have won, and but for a late Holland goal, would have won. What’s more- it was a coming out party of sorts for both Kljestan and Bradley. It was hard to watch that game and not think– this is the USMNT midfield of the future. That year, US Soccer intelligentsia agreed- naming Kljestan there young male athlete of the year.
After that, however, Kljestan’s career, at both club and with national teams, took a bit of a rocky turn. A failed trial at Celtic and national team disappointments left Kljestan wondering what would happen next. He was left out of the 2010 World Cup team after playing a critical role in qualifying. At Chivas, his detractors were louder than his supporters. He’s a liability defensively, his detractors said. He’s not a great team guy, they claimed. He’s too-showy and not a consistent, grind-it-out leader, they wrote.
His supporters saw something different. He’s a technical talent the US hardly ever produces, a true central midfielder capable of playing two-touch, distribution football and unlocking defenses and maintaining large swaths of possession. (NOTE: We’ve long been in this camp: This was still the type of player who should be integral to the center of the US midfield, we wrote in both 2009, and in 2010, after he moved to Anderlecht.) He shouldn’t be moved to the flank, or asked to play in a conservative system that doesn’t optimize his highly technical skill set, they wrote.
MLS didn’t agree. They made a very low contract extension offer and when Kljestan turned it down, the league’s hand was forced. It could either sell the young talent on the cheap or lose him completely. They chose the former, selling him to Anderlecht for $750,000 in 2010.
Kljestan hasn’t looked back. He’s now an integral part of an Anderlecht side that has played in the Champions League competition and hasn’t dropped a match in league play since October. He’s among the team leaders in minutes played, is a leader in the clubhouse, and has made a happy life for himself in Brussels with his young wife, model Jamie Lee Darley. Recently, Anderlecht rewarded Kljestan’s leadership and form with a three-year contract extension.
What’s more, after wearing the captain’s armband in an Olympiad for his country, he had to wait to get back into the national team fold, but he has been patient, and has now featured off the bench in four consecutive matches for the United States under Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsman waited a while to give Kljestan the call– but to his credit, Klinsman has hailed Kljestan’s consistency and important role at his club, and has noted it is likely Kljestan will continue to play for the national team as qualifying proceeds.
All in all, it’s been a terrific 2012 and early 2013 for Kljestan, and we were fortunate enough to sit down and chat with him about his personal progress, his role on the national team, and much more this week.
Here’s our conversation.
The Yanks Are Coming: Talking with Anderlecht and US midfielder Sacha Kljestan—first things first, eight point lead in the domestic league, among the team leaders in minutes played, and a two-year contract extension. Talk to us how it feels to be established as a player with a Champions League caliber club?
Kljestan: “I think my role on the team is very important, and I feel good here at Anderlecht. That’s why I signed a new three year contract. My wife and I are very happy to be living here in Brussels, a nice city, playing for a good club. Obviously the Champions League experience, and the chances that we play in Champions League again next season were big factors in me signing my contract extension.
The Yanks Are Coming: Obviously, Anderlecht had the tough exit from Europe in December, but the team hasn’t lost in the league since October? What’s been the most consistent thing about you all as a team during that time period?
Kljestan: “I think everybody as a team right now is playing at a good level. Like you said, we had a disappointing exit from Champions League this season, but I hope we draw from those experiences, learn, and do better next season. For now, I think the key to our success has been consistency and confidence. And obviously I think we’ve had a deep bench as well. We’ve had to have a few changes, with suspensions, injuries, and things like that and we haven’t really skipped a beat. That’s important.”
The Yanks Are Coming: Various leagues have different reputations, fair or not. Holland, for example is a goal-scorers league, an attacking league. MLS is faster than people think and extremely physical. Is there anything about playing in Brussels and in Belgium you think is unique to that league?
Kljestan: “Yeah, I think the league is actually quite defensive, especially in games involving Anderlecht. We obviously have a very strong attacking team and the majority of the teams we play against are sitting back behind the ball with nine or ten guys. So the league is not as high-scoring as say Holland or MLS. It’s a bit more open there where teams mostly play man-to-man and 4-3-3. That took an adjustment on my part. You have to be a little more patient, you have to be willing to dig in and win the midfield battle and things like that, and I think with it being a very defensive-minded league, it’s also a very physical league.”
The Yanks Are Coming: You talked a little bit about this already, but with the extension now signed, and you and your wife being very happy in Brussels, what was the most rewarding thing about the extension, in terms of what you think that said about you as a player?
Kljestan: “I think just having the support of the general manager and the President. That’s really been there since day one. They believed in me, they bought me from MLS. They knew I’d become an important part of the team and I think they’re rewarding me with my success that I’ve had at Anderlecht and I’m rewarding them for the faith they’ve put in me. They see me as a leader, and I think overall both sides are happy. The supporters have always been behind me, my teammates have supported me and they have confidence in me, and most of all, the coach and the Board of Directors have confidence in me as well. That feels good.”
The Yanks Are Coming: I’m glad you mentioned being a leader. I think after a bit of a national team hiatus—I don’t know any other way to put it—you’ve played in the last four national team matches, including the tough loss two weeks ago in Honduras. How rewarding is that Jurgen Klinsmann seems to be rewarding your consistency and leadership at the club level?”
Kljestan: “Yeah, it’s nice to know that he has faith in me now. It might have taken a little bit longer than I wanted, but to be honest the main goal in the end is to help the team qualify for the World Cup and in the end being on that plane down to Brazil. So, I don’t hold any hard feelings that it took longer than I wanted to be in the national team. All that matters now is that the last few games I’ve had an important role off the bench, and that I’m still working hopefully towards a starting spot at some point. But whatever role I will have with the national team I will accept it and embrace it.”
The Yanks Are Coming: Well, as you know, we’ve been a pretty big advocate of you having an increased, even starting role for a while, and one of the reasons, I think, is you’ve been playing with Michael Bradley for so long.
The Yanks Are Coming: It seems like the two of you have a really good rapport together. And I think, in flashes, you could see that in the Honduras match. There was a little more initiative, a little more two-touch football and link-up with the two of you in the midfield. Tell us a little bit about playing with Michael as long as you have and how comfortable you are playing together at this point in your career.
Kljestan: “Well, I agree with what you said 100 percent that when the two of us are on the field together, we look for each other often, and even try to look for that triangle with Clint Dempsey. There’s comfort between the three of us. Playing with Michael, I think we have a similar role with our club teams, what he does for Roma and what I do for Anderlecht. Obviously we’re both playing at a high level, playing with good players and I think when we get back together, in training or matches we always try to search for each other to make combinations that work. We believe in each other, and we have similar ideas on the field. I think my best games with the national team came in games where I played in the middle of the field paired with Michael Bradley. One of my most important games with the national team came when we beat Mexico in Columbus to start off the Hex in 2009. That was with Michael and I in the middle, and we worked well together. Michael’s matured a lot. He’s still a young guy but he’s got a ton of experience and certainly he’s turned himself into one of the most important players on our national team.”
The Yanks Are Coming: I think universally, everyone was frustrated with the loss in Honduras, but, CONCACAF road matches are always tricky.
The Yanks Are Coming: But do you think this is the best the region has been since you started playing with the national team?
Kljestan: “I think it’s the best it has been in its history, to be honest. Teams are getting better and better. When you go down to Honduras, for example, you see the country is pretty poor, life is tough, and you wouldn’t expect them to have such a good footballing team—but they’ve got a lot of guys that are playing in Europe, guys that are playing in MLS and doing really well and they’ve turned into a pretty strong team in CONCACAF. And that’s just one example. Costa Rica is good. Panama has gotten very good recently. Mexico and the US have always been the top two, but even recently, Jamaica goes to Mexico and gets a good result. It’s a lot harder than it was before. Having said that, I think the US is up at the top near Mexico and that we’ll still qualify. We shouldn’t be worried just yet.”
The Yanks Are Coming: Yeah, I’d agree it’s certainly not time to panic. Two more quick questions- we saw last week how outspoken you were in support of Robbie Rogers. That was great to see.
The Yanks Are Coming: Do you think maybe Robbie’s courage may open the door for other players, and ones who, you know, I’m not saying Robbie’s not going to play again, but maybe one who comes out and decides to keep playing?”
Kljestan: “Well, I think certainly all the support that came from the United States was great. I think as a culture in the States, we’re a bit more accepting than maybe other places in the world. It’s nice to see that in the States there was so much support for Robbie. I think that meant a lot to him. Each person is different, but I think most of us would hope that Robbie gives the courage to other players. Look, we have to know there are other gay players out there, and I hope they have the courage to come out, but I think every person is different and will have different fears about how they may be treated if they come out. I hope that doesn’t stop people from coming out, but mostly, I think Robbie is a small pioneer and I’m proud of him.”
The Yanks Are Coming: We are too. Lastly, we have annual awards at our website, and one is the “Best Hair” award- we call it the Alexi Lalas.
The Yanks Are Coming: Every year, it seems like you, Brek Shea or Stu Holden wins, so we have to ask about the mustache. What made you decide to do that, and will we see it again here in the future?
Kljestan: (Laughs) “It started in November, when they were doing the “No Shave November” thing and I said ‘I’m gonna do it for a month and see how it looks’, but in the meantime during that month we won all four of our games in Belgium and I told my teammates- ‘Okay, I’m gonna keep my mustache until we lose or draw a game. And it just so happened we won like twelve games in a row and it was there for more than like three months. The main thing for me was I don’t think I looked bad with it and my wife kind of liked it and that’s all that matters for me, but we drew a few weeks ago and I had to shave it off. But I appreciate all the love and support I got for it, whether people thought it was ridiculous or really cool.”
The Yanks Are Coming: That’s awesome. So it was like a hockey beard?
Kljestan: “Yeah, except I can’t really grow a beard. I only get the mustache going.”
The Yanks Are Coming: Okay, Sacha, we really appreciate your time and all the best the rest of the season and with the national team this year.
Kljestan: “Thanks. No problem, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.