NEW YORK – Sacha Kljestan has never played for new U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena before, but he came close.
Two years ago, the then-LA Galaxy manager maneuvered and had the roster space and cap room to sign Kljestan, who was then nearing the end of a five-year run at RSC Anderlecht of the Belgian first division. MLS nixed the move, to the supreme annoyance of Arena. He was fined $20,000 for his battering of the league's policies, and Kljestan remained with Anderlecht until his January 2015 move to the New York Red Bulls.
Now, as one of the players who most stands to benefit from Arena’s hire as U.S. national team coach, Kljestan may finally get the chance to play for the coach he says he still runs into every summer while doing offseason workouts at the Galaxy's StubHub Center.
“Whenever I watch the Galaxy play, I always thought I would fit in on one of his teams,” Kljestan told SI.com at the opening of Adidas’ flagship store in Manhattan on Thursday. “For me personally, I’m excited about having a new coach. I think I have a big future with the national team, I still think I can help the team in a position that needs help.”
The midfielder struggled to get caps and playing time under Jurgen Klinsmann, even while becoming one of the most productive playmakers in Major League Soccer–and a 2016 MVP finalist–after joining the Red Bulls. And though he has yet to speak with Arena since his hire, Kljestan knows enough about him to realize that he may not be asked to play exactly the same role as he does in New York. He’s OK with that.
“The good thing about me is that I can play in multiple positions,” said Kljestan, who has 34 assists in his last two seasons. “So if he sees me as someone that can play alongside or maybe a little bit in front of Michael Bradley I can do that, or if we play a formation like the Red Bulls play where I'm the No. 10 underneath the striker, I can do that, too.”
That would fit the bill for Arena, who told reporters this week: "We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field that can deliver the right ball at the right time. Who that is remains to be seen. There's a couple of domestic players that are very good at that that we'll look at in camp in January, and that to me is an area that we've got to identify."
In recent weeks, though, the main position Kljestan has been occupying is one of relaxation. The midfielder didn’t even initially watch Wednesday’s thrilling conclusion to the Montreal Impact-Toronto FC playoff matchup, though considering the Red Bulls’ painful exit at the hands of Montreal, that’s somewhat understandable.
Instead, Kljestan followed passively on Twitter, until it became clear that the game had had gotten truly dramatic. He turned it on in the 70th minute, and watched until the end.
“I just hate watching Eastern Conference games,” Kljestan said. “I’ve been watching Western Conference playoff games, but watching Eastern Conference games still makes me feel a little bit bitter and disappointed that we're not there.”
Kljestan, who missed out on his club’s end-of-season meetings thanks to national team duty, says that he hasn’t spoken to Red Bulls leadership about a possible contract extension. with his deal set to expire at the end of next season.
“I assume those discussions might start sometime soon,” he said, before indicating that he is very open to a return. “[My wife] is very happy here, I'm very happy here. I don't see why not.”