In 2016, Sacha Kljestan became just the second player in league history to register 20 or more assists in a season. In 2017...
...he carved his name into the record books. Not even past greats like Carlos Valderrama, Marco Etcheverry or Landon Donovan had led the league in helpers twice in a row. It's a pretty momentous achievement, and it speaks well of a Red Bulls team that was one of the best attacking sides in MLS during the duration of Kljestan's three-year stay.
During that three-year stay he registered 51 assists, a three-year total second only to Valderrama's 53 (from 1998-2000). The underlying numbers liked Kljestan as well, as he ranked third in MLS in expected assists in 2015, second in 2016 and first in 2017. He was third in chances created (passes that lead to a shot) in 2015, then first in 2016 and 2017.
Kljestan is the very definition of a playmaker. He has the vision to see the last pass and the talent to hit it, and his teams win.
All of the above makes it a little strange that I don't know where Kljestan will be playing this year following his offseason trade to Orlando City. Kljestan, who still has plenty of legs left (and a style that should age well) at 32, has played other spots in the past. For Anderlecht he was a string-pulling, zone-moving No. 8, while back in the day for Chivas RIP he was a playmaking left midfielder in a 4-2-2-2 who'd dip inside occasionally to go directly at goal.
How will Jason Kreis us him in Florida? Not sure, but it's a fair bet that the decision will largely come down to how Kljestan and new DP Josue Colman interact in preseason. Kreis has been explicit that Colman, a 19-year-old Paraguayan international, is a No. 10 – a central midfield playmaker. But Colman's also played a little bit out on the right flank, and even some as a second forward.
Despite that, he's not really a goalscorer (4g in 48 games for Cerro Porteño), and neither is Kljestan, and there's the rub. Play a diamond with Kljestan at the front point and Colman up top alongside Dom Dwyer, and A) you probably don't have enough goalscoring out there, while B) where does Justin Meram play? Move Kljestan back to one of the shuttler spots and Colman at the front point, and you'll score goals, but there's arguably not enough defense/field coverage. Switch to a 4-2-3-1 with Kljestan in his old No. 8 role and Colman as the playmaker and you run into those defensive concerns again, while at the same time guaranteeing that only one of Yoshi Yotun/Uri Rosell/Will Johnson/Cristian Higuita can find the field.
Does that make a 4-2-3-1 with Dwyer up top and Kljestan as the central No. 10, flanked by Meram (on the left) and Colman (on the right) the only really workable look? I'm not willing to say "yes" to that just yet – I really want to see the diamond with Colman as the 10 and Kljestan as a shuttler – but I am leaning in that direction.
What it should mean, then, is another year of superior chance creation from Kljestan, and a chance for Colman to ease into the league in a featured attacking role, but not necessarily as a "put all the pressure on me" centerpiece.
Either way it's playoffs or bust for the Lions, and for Kljestan. He's got this spot in the record books, and has made his mark on the league. Now the best thing he can do for his legacy, and for his new club's, is to translate that regular-season dominance into post-season success, and maybe to book a November trip to Harrison in the process.