- MLS's leading assist man is back in U.S. camp, and with absences in Jurgen Klinsmann's midfield, he could prove himself on the field in key World Cup qualifiers.
It turns out, Jurgen Klinsmann has been watching. He may have been doing so quietly and from a greater distance than Sacha Kljestan would have liked, but Monday it became clear that the New York Red Bulls midfielder’s impact hasn’t gone unnoticed.
With Michael Bradley suspended and Jermaine Jones ailing ahead of Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifier at St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Klinsmann has brought the versatile, often overlooked 30-year-old midfielder back into the national team fold. And this isn’t a courtesy call. Considering Kljestan’s form and availability issues elsewhere on the roster, he’ll likely be doing more than just putting on a U.S. jersey for the first time in more than two years. He’ll be getting it dirty as well.
Klinsmann’s increased effort to maintain stability within the national team has been slightly thwarted by circumstance. The manager intended to call in 21 of the 23 players who made up the Copa América Centenario for this month’s games, which will round out CONCACAF’s semifinal round of qualifiers. The U.S. (2-1-1) is in good shape to be one of the two teams that survives the Group C quartet, but it still probably needs four points, if not six, out of Friday’s game and the Sept. 6 finale against Trinidad & Tobago (3-0-1).
“We definitely think that the group that got fourth in the Copa América deserves a certain priority going on to the next World Cup qualifiers because they did tremendously well,” Klinsmann said in conjunction with Sunday’s roster release. “They deserve to come back and confirm what they did in the tournament in these upcoming, very important World Cup qualifiers.”
But then Clint Dempsey was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat and Gyasi Zardes was hurt late Saturday by a hard tackle from Vancouver Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston. Jones, who’s been out with a knee injury since early July, flew to Florida from Denver to get looked at by U.S. coaches and staff. There's a chance he won't fly again to St. Vincent, and he's not expected to play. Meanwhile, sure-fire center back starter John Brooks now is out as well and will remain in Germany “with back issues,” U.S. Soccer said Monday.
Throw in Bradley’s one-game suspension, the result of yellow card accumulation, and there’s some significant continuity concerns as Friday approaches. Enter Kljestan, who now appears to be capitalizing on the versatility that may have hurt his international prospects in the past.
Kljestan has been capped 46 times, but only 11 of those U.S. appearances have come since Klinsmann took over in 2011. That’s despite the midfielder’s four-plus year stay in Belgium, where he helped Brussels power Anderlecht to three league titles and multiple appearances in the UEFA Champions League’s group stage. Klinsmann said he wanted U.S. players to test themselves at the highest level. There was Kljestan doing just that, winning championships and playing in European tournaments, but the coach didn’t seem interested shortly after taking over. That prompted the now-infamous, “12/12 points in Europa League and qualification for the knockout stages. Well done boys! Are you even watching???” tweet in November 2011.
A few months later, Kljestan expressed some regret, saying, “I don’t want to be the guy who’s the sh**, who’s acting like I have a big ego, like I deserve something better. It just came up in a moment of frustration after so many good results, so many good performances. But I think my attitude got better after that moment of frustration.”
He added, "I’m just going to keep working until I do get a good chance with the national team and then make the most of it.”
He played mostly in a defensive or holding role with Anderlecht, doing the sort of “dirty work” that “doesn’t always get recognized,” he said. He appeared four times as a U.S. substitute in 2012 and finally got to start a few games toward the end of 2013. Performances were middling, and his last shot at the World Cup team came in a March 2014 friendly against Ukraine. Kljestan was behind Kyle Beckerman in defensive midfield, wasn’t going to unseat Bradley or Jones and found the likes of Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi preferred in more attacking spots. Kljestan was a decathlete—good at everything but not so outstanding in any particular role. When the World Cup ended, he appeared to be on the wrong side of the turning page.
Then he hooked up with New York Red Bulls. Coach Jesse Marsch relies heavily on Kljestan’s experience, intelligence and ability to cover ground to turn New York’s frenetic press into offensive opportunities. And the former Anderlecht grinder has thrived, helping the Red Bulls to the 2015 Supporters' Shield with eight goals and 14 assists and then to within three points of this year’s Eastern Conference lead with five goals and a lead-leading, club-record 15 helpers. He was an All-Star and now, finally, is headed back to U.S. camp.
“If you value performance in the league, if you look at the year-and-a-half that Sacha’s had in that position and the fact he’s been on one of the better teams and he’s been so essential and performed at such a high level—I don’t see how he’s not considered,’’ Marsch told the New York Post last month. “For me, he deserves a look. … Based on where he is now he deserves to be on the national team.”
Kljestan has been nothing but diplomatic since his 2011 outburst. He’s been asked about his national team absence many times, but he now answers those questions with his play.
“I try not to think about it too much. My sole focus is for the Red Bulls to get their first MLS Cup,’’ Kljestan told the Post. “In the back of my mind I always hope for one more chance play in the national team jersey. If I do, I’ll be ready.”
And he was. New York defeated the New England Revolution on Sunday afternoon and then later that evening, just before midnight, the Red Bulls were contacted by U.S. Soccer. It was the first such contact in a long time. By Monday morning, Kljestan was on a flight, preparing to help the Americans reach the next round of qualifying.
He’d be a good fit behind strikers Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood or as a shuttler between Beckerman and someone like Bedoya or Darlington Nagbe. Kljestan has proven he can adapt and play complex roles. And Klinsmann has demonstrated that, no matter how quiet he is or how long it’s been, he’s always watching.