MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – Sacha Kljestan knew Jesse Marsch as a fiery on-field leader when they were teammates for four seasons with Chivas USA, but he saw a different side of the New York Red Bulls' manager last season and admits that he “exceeded my expectations as a coach.”
Kljestan was one of the pivotal pieces as the Red Bulls won MLS's Supporters' Shield last season, with Marsch picking up league Coach of the Year honors, and says the club's success wasn't the result of a “one-year plan” but rather a “long-term” effort to bring trophies to New Jersey, and the boss' work has been vital.
“Jesse is definitely competitive, he always has that to him, but he's much more calm now as a coach [than he was as Chivas' midfield general in 2006-09],” Kljestan said during MLS's media roundtable this week in Southern California. “He's very good at communicating with players, he's very good at staying calm through difficult moments. ... This is the biggest thing that stands out to me about our team and Jesse, is we lost four games in a row during [late spring], and typically that's a time when coaches start worrying. They start questioning themselves, they start questioning the system, the players, everything. And then if they start to freak out, the players start to freak out.
“I speak to Jesse a lot, and he never freaked out once. He never was worried. He said, 'Trust in the system, the system's going to work. Believe in each other, believe in the team. Trust me, the results are going to come.'”
The Red Bulls won five of six exiting the skid and went 14-5-1 in their final 20 MLS regular-season matches to finish 18-10-6, winning the Eastern Conference by seven points and edging out FC Dallas on total goals for the Shield.
Marsch, who retired as a player after the 2009 season to join Bob Bradley's US national team staff and then guided the Montreal Impact in their inaugural 2012 season, was hired as Red Bulls coach last January following Mike Petke's controversial dismissal. He built a strong side that largely revolved around the midfield tandem of Kljestan and MLS Best XI selection Dax McCarty, who signed a contract extension during the offseason.
“I let the club know that I would really like to continue playing with Dax and that he makes me a better player,” Kljestan said. “I think playing with him is very easy, in a way, because when he gets the ball deep in midfield, I know his first option is always to find me between the lines. And so he knows if I get myself into a good spot, that he's going to find me with the ball, and I know what I'm going to do with it next.
“So to play with a guy like that, who's always kind of doing the dirty work behind me, who's always thinking a step ahead, kind of like I am, it's been a pleasure playing with Dax. .... I'm happy that I think me and Dax will both be around for a long time.”
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Kljestan, who scored eight goals with 14 assists in MLS regular-season play last year, says Marsch, too, has made him a better player. He could see Marsch as a coach when they played at Chivas.
“You could imagine him because he acted like a coach in many ways,” Kljestan said. “But he exceeded my expectations as coach [last] season. I think he's a very good coach, and he deserved to be the Coach of the Year. He led our group very well. We all, I think, liked playing for him and look forward to the future.”
Marsch has a particular impact on Kljestan, who came to the Red Bulls after four and a half seasons with Belgian powerhouse RSC Anderlecht, about midway through the season.
“Through  games, I had two goals and one assist, and he said, 'Don't worry, the goals will come,'” Kljestan said. “'The goals will come through you, they will come through everybody. We're going to start scoring a lot more, don't worry, don't worry.'
“Having him make those reminders, having him stay calm as the leader of the team, and then you saw the run we went on – I think he's a very good coach.”