KANSAS CITY, Kan. – The last thing Sacha Kljestan wants to experience next May is déjà vu.
The 28-year-old knows all too well what it’s like to be on the brink of living a dream, then have the same life-changing opportunity vanish before your eyes. That particular gut punch came in 2010, when Kljestan – then with Chivas USA – found himself on Bob Bradley’s preliminary World Cup roster but not among the 23 players headed to South Africa.
Nearly four years later and with Brazil 2014 now eight months away, the Anderlecht midfielder is on the tipping point once again, thriving with the Belgian champions and playing in the UEFA Champions League, but squarely in limbo when it comes to a place on Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster.
Needless to say, limbo is not where Kljestan wants to be now or next summer.
“It’s one of my last goals as a football player to play in a World Cup; it’s a big goal for me,” he told MLSsoccer.com following Wednesday’s public training session. “I missed out in 2010, and it was one of the biggest disappointments in my career. That drives me. I don’t want to be sitting in a hotel next summer finding out I’m not going to Brazil. I want to be on the plane with the guys, I want to help the guys play and finish as best as we can in the World Cup. It would be a dream come true.”
And yet Kljestan knows better than most that dreams can be tenuous. Despite ticking off box after box with his success at the club level, Kljestan has rarely gotten a consistent run with the US, and earning one of those plane tickets appears to be somewhat of an uphill battle.
Kljestan’s only start for the Nats since Klinsmann took the reins in July 2011 came in May’s 4-2 friendly loss against Belgium, and Kljestan has logged only three substitute appearances in this cycle of World Cup qualifying, just one of which came in the final Hexagonal – a 2-1 loss in Honduras. He followed that with five matches as an unused sub, then was not called up for matches against Costa Rica and Mexico last month.
This after Kljestan appeared in the first four Hexagonal games of 2009 and played in the US run to the Confederations Cup final under Bradley – his former club coach – yet still found himself on the wrong side of the aisle for the 2010 tournament. Among players who failed to make that World Cup roster, only Heath Pearce and Brian Ching played more minutes than Kljestan for Bradley's US team. All in all, he's played less than 250 minutes in seven games for Klinsmann in a little more than two years, a lack of opportunities Klinsmann said is a “little bit unlucky” based on who stands in front of Kljestan, namely Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley.
“From his perspective, that is disappointing and a little bit bitter to swallow, but he also understands the competition there,” Klinsmann told USsoccer.com. “When you look at the consistency he has built over the last few years, that speaks highly about him. He deserves to be back in this group. I wish I could give him more playing time, and I know he hasn’t played as much as he wanted to.”
Kljestan’s hope in this particular camp is that injuries – to Bradley in midfield and Omar Gonzalez on defense – could provide a rare chance to give Klinsmann something to think about. With Geoff Cameron likely to slot in next to Matt Besler in central defense, the battle to partner Jones appears to come down to Kljestan, Mix Diskerud and Kyle Beckerman, who filled that role against Mexico in Columbus.
But don’t expect Kljestan to do anything different in the lead up to Friday’s match in order to catch his boss’s eye.
“I think [Jurgen] knows my capabilities,” Kljestan said. “I think when you try to come in and show off, you don’t show well and you try to do too much. I’ve never been a player like that. I try to be a team player and give everything for the team. Hopefully he can say when I play, the team plays better, and I help my team in a positive way.”
Unfortunately for Kljestan – and the others hoping for a spot on the World Cup roster, for that matter – time is running out. Less than eight months stand between now and May’s World Cup roster deadline. Less than eight months between a dream come true or another dose of disappointment.
Kljestan knows the stakes, knows how fluid the line between in and out can be. And for the next week, and likely in two friendlies played in Europe in November, he has golden opportunities to prove he belongs among Klinsmann’s 23. The question is, will it be enough?
“We’ll see. I hope so. I really hope so,” Kljestan said. “I don’t know how many games there are before the World Cup. There’s not many, but sometimes all it takes is one game.”