Kljestan's brilliance in Belgium merits long look from Klinsmann
When the NCAA men's basketball tournament takes center stage in about a month, we'll hear plenty usage of the term "blind résumé." It is a comparison method for decision-makers to look at the body of work for teams on the tournament-field bubble without being clouded by predetermined bias linked to a school's name or conference affiliation.
While it is far from an exact science, the blind résumé provides a meat-and-potatoes breakdown of who merits consideration for inclusion based on tangible accomplishments, leaving name and reputation out of the equation.
The same tactic can be applied to American soccer players and their cases for inclusion on the U.S. national team. Take this brief example, for the aptly named Player A:
• Player A has essentially followed Jurgen Klinsmann's road map for young, American talent, leaving MLS for Europe at 24.
• Player A has secured regular, starter's minutes for a major club at a position of need for the national team.
• Player A continues to improve in all areas of his game.
• Player A is more than familiar with the U.S. setup and has proved to be a valuable complementary piece internationally as recently as this summer.
So Player A makes the cut then, right?
Not if Player A happens to be Sacha Kljestan. Not yet, anyway.
Despite being a consistent starter and top performer in central midfield for RSC Anderlecht, Belgium's best team, the 26-year-old Kljestan has remained far removed from a U.S. roster since September, the only time he has been called in during Klinsmann's eight months in charge. He came off the bench in the 66th minute of the 1-0 loss to Costa Rica on Sept. 2 for his only U.S. minutes since performing as an effective option during the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Adding insult to insult, the playmaker was an unused substitute in the following United States friendly after the Costa Rica game, a match against Belgium. The friendly took place in Brussels and a proper location and setting to give Kljestan a run out against an attack-minded side, where his counterattacking distribution could have come in handy. Kljestan was then subsequently not called in for two other friendlies on European soil, remaining on the periphery despite his club form.
That has not stopped him from continuing to churn out quality performances for Anderlecht. Although his four goals this season are noteworthy, it is not so much the scoring production that matters. It is his more discerning eye, improved passing and overall facilitating abilities that have him a fixture in the Anderlecht XI and a candidate to wear the U.S. shirt again.
Kljestan's performance last weekend included a well-taken free kick that wound up in the back of the net. The slick set piece was the latest sign of his growing confidence and expanded role for a club that is poised for a run in the UEFA Europa League knockout rounds after being the only team to sweep through the six-game group stage with a maximum 18 points.
"We've been working on free kicks, set pieces for the past few weeks," Kljestan said in a postgame video interview on Anderlecht's website. "It's a shot I've practiced for a long time, and they said that if the ball is 25 meters or so out I should shoot it. So I looked at the bench and (Anderlecht assistant coach Besnik Hasi) said take it and (Anderlecht midfielder Lucas) Biglia told me to take it also, so there was no doubt in my mind."
Kljestan is a far different player now than he was when he received the bulk of his 34 U.S. caps. At the end of the day, Klinsmann does not have to subscribe to the blind résumé method, and perhaps he has already made up his mind based on past reputation and performances that Kljestan does not fit into his formation. Leaving all preconceived biases aside, though, maybe it's worth rewarding the in-form Kljestan, someone who fits the bill and U.S. void as a technical, playmaking central midfielder with an attacking eye, with another call-up for the Feb. 29 friendly against Italy.
Kljestan was not the only American goal scorer this week, as Clint Dempsey added another tally to his single-season career-high with a mid-week strike against West Brom. A couple Americans also figured into a pair of penalty decisions, with DaMarcus Beasley drawing a penalty and Oguchi Onyewu conceding one in another busy week for Americans playing abroad. Here's how they all fared (season statistics encompass all competitions):