By the time the whistle blew in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, there was little doubt about Sacha Kljestan. In just 24 minutes as a second-half substitute, he scored once and assisted on two other goals.
Although the Vincy Heat were not the toughest of opponents, there was this palpable sense that Kljestan belonged with the U.S. men’s national team. Pulling the strings in the USMNT midfield and creating goals out of nothing, Kljestan made it look effortless and obvious. It came together just like it had with the New York Red Bulls for the past two years.
But just a few days earlier, Kljestan’s return to the USMNT felt like little more than a remote possibility. Kljestan hadn’t featured for the team since March 2014 and coach Jurgen Klinsmann appeared to be unmoved by Kljestan’s MVP-worthy performances in MLS. In fact, Kljestan arrived on the roster for the World Cup qualifier in St. Vincent & the Grenadines as an afterthought, only added to the roster five days before the game after John Brooks had to be removed from the initial squad due to injury.
Kljestan wasn’t good enough in Klinsmann’s eyes to make the initial roster for World Cup qualifiers in August, and yet now, he is pushing for a starting spot in the opening match of the Hex on Friday against Mexico.
Since his return in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, he has racked up four straight USMNT appearances marked by solid consistency. Poised and confident on the ball, he quickly offered a new dimension to the USMNT attack with his leading through-balls and the outlets he created centrally. In his second match against Trinidad & Tobago, a World Cup qualifier, he opened the scoring and opened the floodgates for a 4-0 win. It was an ugly scramble in the box, but it started from a lovely combination pushing forward that Kljestan himself started.
After that match, Klinsmann – who is usually so coy about his future plans – told reporters that Kljestan had made the most of his opportunity and the midfielder would be back. The coach who has often seemed to relish in keeping everyone guessing apparently sensed that Kljestan’s performance spoke for itself – it was a performance too good to leave any doubt in anyone’s minds.
The Americans, for all the depth and talent they’ve added in recent years, have lacked a playmaker with the vision and quality of Kljestan. Over his last four USMNT appearances, the Americans looked different and more threatening closer to goal with him on the field. Even in quieter outings like the pair of friendlies against New Zealand last month, the attack looked more fluid and dynamic.
It is just the beginning of what looks like it’ll be a remarkable comeback for Kljestan – and one that was a long time coming.
He got his professional start in MLS as the fifth overall draft pick of 2006 and, as a straight-forward attacking midfielder, he was a finalist for the league’s rookie of the year. But when, years later, he went to the largest club in Belgium, Anderlecht, he was forced to evolve his game. He needed to be able to play box to box and defend.
With Anderlecht, he was positioned just in front of the defensive line. He helped control the game’s tempo and thrust the attack forward in transition like he does now, but much of his workload involved defending and sitting deeper than he does for the Red Bulls now.
By the time he came back to MLS last year, he was a more well-rounded and sophisticated player than when he left. Yes, he’s a clean passer who knows how to split defenses with through-balls and he finds his own pockets of space to get into when breaking down opponents. And on restarts, his set pieces are almost always dangerous. But he also is good about tracking back and winning back the ball, which has been so important to the Red Bulls’ success this year. Their high pressure works because Kljestan is so good in transition.
Everything he picked up from his time with Chivas USA as a rookie to Belgium’s powerhouse Anderlecht has been on full display in NY. Kljestan has been the perfect No. 10 for New York 4-2-3-1 system they play, with Bradley Wright-Phillips as the lone target striker up top. The pairing has been the league’s best – Kljestan with 20 assists and Wright-Phillips with 24 goals, leaders of each category this year.
Things could’ve gone different for Kljestan – he nearly ended up with the LA Galaxy in 2014. Coach Bruce Arena tried unsuccessfully to acquire Kljestan, and Arena was later fined $20,000 for alleging the league blocked the move.
But perhaps it was a bit of serendipity for Kljestan. It’s unclear if Klinsmann is willing to switch away from the USMNT’s long-favored 4-4-2 formation or if he can make it work, but in Kljestan he has someone who can thrive in a system where he feeds balls to one target up top. Considering the form Jozy Altidore is in lately and his Wright-Phillips-esque finishing ability, Kljestan gives Klinsmann the option to consider.
That’s how good Kljestan has been lately for club and country – he’s not just carving out a starting spot for the USMNT, but having the USMNT tweak their formation to get the most out of Kljestan is an idea that isn’t too far-fetched. After all, through the USMNT’s last four matches – two World Cup qualifiers and two friendlies – Kljestan has arguably been the best player of the batch.
For Kljestan, it’s been a whirlwind return to the USMNT that seemingly sprung out of nowhere. Though he may be 31 years old, he looks like he can make the case to be indispensable, at least as long as he keeps up his current form. There are few, if any, current USMNT regulars who have the same skillset or have it as well as Kljestan does.
Of course, if Kljestan came back after a two-year absence to quickly fade away again after a handful of games, it wouldn’t be much of a comeback. Kljestan’s first real test – a high-stakes and difficult test – lays ahead against Mexico on Friday. If he can get past it, then call it a comeback.
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