KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Sacha Kljestan seems like just the kind of player Jurgen Klinsmann would be eager to integrate into his ongoing project with the US national team.
After five years establishing himself in MLS, Kljestan took the European plunge, leaving his Southern California comfort zone for unfamiliar surroundings in central Belgium. Once there, he fought his way into an Anderlecht side currently in the midst of a UEFA Champions League campaign and quest to defend their league title.
Here was a player aiming high, taking risks and seeking out challenges without guarantees of success. And yet, the call from Klinsmann was slow materializing.
But when it came time for Kljestan to make his mark of Friday against Antigua & Barbuda, he didn’t hesitate. In his first World Cup qualifying appearance in more than three years, the 27-year-old delivered the extra bit of attacking impetus that helped the US snatch a crucial last-minute victory.
Could he follow up Friday’s standout substitute performance with a well-earned start Tuesday against Guatemala (7 pm ET; ESPN2/TeleFutura; LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com)? That remains to be seen, but it’s clear Kljestan is prepared for whatever is asked of him – which most likely is going to mean adding to the attack.
“I’m just trying to take my chance,” he said Monday prior to US training. “Jurgen has given me an opportunity to help the team in an important time for the team. I’m just trying to do my best, play with urgency and try help the team be a little bit more creative on the attacking side of the ball.”
Creativity has often been in short supply in a US midfield normally stocked with two defensive midfielders, especially since CONCACAF opponents usually play the numbers game themselves, operating under the principle that the more players behind the ball the better.
It was no different against Antigua & Barbuda, and that’s a major reason why Klinsmann looked down the bench for Kljestan with the game tied 1-1, a decision that was rewarded when he found Alan Gordon in space to deliver the cross that produced Eddie Johnson’s winner.
“We could tell from the bench that it wasn’t as easy game. … [Klinsmann] just told me to play quickly, play with urgency, try to get things in front of the goal and obviously play forward, don’t play square balls or play backwards,” Kljestan said. “I think I tried to play forward as much as I could. To be involved in the last goal was nice. I [also] got a good shot. I think I added a few things to the attack in the last 15 minutes.”
With Jermaine Jones suspended and Klinsmann’s stated aim of guaranteeing Hexagonal qualification with an attack-minded victory, it certainly seems Kljestan could be in line for his first US start since the Bob Bradley era.
He’s earned, at the very least, a place in that discussion. Not that it’s weighing on him ahead of the US’ biggest match under the manager that seemed to overlook him for the first part of his tenure.
“I don’t think I feel so much pressure. I think as a team, we feel the pressure of the important games,” Kljestan said. “Personally, I just want to make the most of my opportunity. If given the chance to start, I hope I can give a full 90 minutes. In Antigua, I had 12 minutes and had to make the most of it, and I think I did.”