Postcard from Europe: Is Sacha Kljestan in line to join US captains abroad?
AMSTERDAM – With three games left in the Jupiler League regular season, Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan is banking on déjà-vu for the country's upcoming championship playoff.
Last season, the Mauves emerged victorious from Belgium's curious title set-up, which halves the points gained by the top six teams through 30 games before they play the decisive 10 in hexagonal format.
It might seem an anti-climactic trap for the league leaders, but Kljestan believes all eyes are on the correct finish line. Anderlecht have 13 wins from a 15-game league unbeaten streak, giving them a nine-point lead heading into Wednesday's home clash with second place Zulte-Waregem.
"We haven't shown any signs of slowing down," Kljestan recently told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Belgium. "We certainly have the feeling that we're the only team that can stop ourselves from winning the championship."
Helping Anderlecht win another title – and get them back to the Champions League – is top priority right now for Kljestan, who has pledged his allegiance to the club with a new contract and enough solid play and leadership to put him in the running for a captaincy, if the right pieces fall into place.
First, the contract. A handful of noteworthy clubs around Europe (including FC Twente and Fulham) have scouted Kljestan over the past year, but he hasn’t listened. His recently inked extension will have him in purple until the summer of 2016.
"I never really set goals for myself, like that I want to play in a bigger league," he said. "For the time being, I'm happy at Anderlecht and I'm happy we have a chance to play in the Champions League next season. That's a big reason why I chose to re-sign."
"It took a little more time than all of us wanted, but the important thing is we get it done," he added. "For me and my wife, we're excited to stay in Brussels. We're happy that the club showed a lot of faith in me as a young guy coming from MLS and now I'm seen as a leader."
And as for that captaincy, there’s been talk around Brussels that Kljestan could be in line for the captaincy if hot transfer topic Lucas Biglia moves on this summer. That would put him in rare company among American field players to serve as captain in Europe, with the likes of Brian McBride (Fulham), Clarence Goodson (Brøndby) and Steve Cherundolo (Hannover).
He hears the discussion, but he doesn't blink.
"It's possible," shrugged Kljestan. "We've never talked about with the coach or anything like that.
"Whether I have a captain's armband or don't, it really doesn't change anything,” he added. “When I was young, I had a lot of older guys that I played with that helped me out and gave me words of wisdom, and I think now I can do that for younger guys."
Chivas USA often dispatched the 27-year-old in an advanced playmaking role, but these days he coolly performs holding duties to support Belgium's top attack while still finding time to stand second on the squad with eight assists on the campaign. Kljestan was able to show the result of his hard development work in this year's Champions League group stage, where the Mauves stayed alive for advancement until the final match.
Among their standouts over his nine games (including qualifying), he notched a goal and four assists. While he doesn't feel that facing AC Milan, Málaga and Zenit St. Petersburg necessarily made him a better player, standing up to those European giants did allow him to understand how big he can be.
"It's not like your technique all the sudden gets better,” he said with a laugh. “The main thing for me is the confidence grows a lot.
"Playing against guys like [Milan's Riccardo] Montolivo or [Zenit star duo Axel] Witsel and Hulk, you compare yourself to those guys and I think overall I played some really good games. You carry that back to your team and also to the national team."
Kljestan is hopeful he’ll travel across the Atlantic for the next two CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers after working a half-hour off the bench in the USMNT's Hexagonal opener, a disappointing 2-1 loss in Honduras.
"After we went up a goal, we were not tactically good enough to close them down," he said. "I think they had more determination than us. We have a feeling in the team that we need to right what we did wrong. I have all the confidence in the world that everybody knows we have to win that game."