Sacha Kljestan has a chip on his shoulder.
The New York Red Bulls’ biggest offseason signing returned to MLS after five years at Belgian powerhouse Anderlecht with the singular goal of proving he is one of the league’s best midfielders. In doing so, not only does he want to bring the Red Bulls their first MLS Cup championship, but he also wants to force his way back into the US national team picture.
“I feel like I’m going into this season like I have something to prove,” Kljestan tells MLSsoccer.com. “I’m extremely motivated. I want to force Jurgen [Klinsmann]’s hand, so he has to select me and I can work my way back into that team. I have aspirations of still playing for national team. I still dream of playing in the next World Cup.”
Klinsmann has made it clear in his time at the helm of the national team that he wants players to be "out of their comfort zone." He has suggested that to do this they need to play for top clubs in Europe. Which is exactly what Kljestan did for years at Anderlecht.
Kljestan, 29, totaled 25 goals and 22 assists in 180 appearances for the Belgian giants while playing primarily as a holding midfielder. He won three league titles and four Belgian Super Cups. He has played in more UEFA Champions League matches (20) in the past five years than any other American player.
Where as Kljestan was known for creating and scoring goals in MLS, he transformed himself at Anderlecht into a tougher, more defensive-minded midfielder in order to ensure playing time.
“We had a lot of talented attacking players, so for me to fit into the team was in a more of box-to-box midfield role,” Kljestan says.
Yet, despite Kljestan’s experience in Europe and the adaptability he showed by learning a new role, he has always been on the periphery of Klinsmann’s national team. After making 33 appearances for the USMNT under Bob Bradley, between 2007 and 2011, Kljestan has made only 13 appearances since Klinsmann was hired in July 2011. He played internationally only sporadically in 2012 and 2013, and was not even part of Klinsmann's 30-man preliminary World Cup roster. His most recent cap came in March 2014 in the 2-0 US loss to Ukraine in Cyprus.
According to Kljestan, his motivation to come back to MLS at this point in his career is similar to Michael Bradley’s a year ago — though he was an extremely popular player among Anderlecht fans, who clearly liked his trademark mustache, he was looking for an opportunity to lead a club with big aspirations. He wanted to be the go-to guy, and he wasn’t presented with that chance in Belgium.
“For me, I was already a leader at Anderlecht, but never captain,” Kljestan said. “I was probably third or fourth in line. Coming to a club like New York, I am one of the older guys on the team and one of the more experienced … I’m going to be a very important player on this team. That, for me personally, was a big factor.”
Kljestan is also at a different point in his life than when he left Chivas USA in 2010. He is now married and has a 1-year-old daughter. Kljestan attended Seton Hall University, located in New Jersey, and often vacationed in New York after moving to Europe. So while not the deciding factor, being in more familiar territory was a benefit to moving stateside.
Which is only part of why the Red Bulls were a perfect fit. The other part was the club's new head coach, Jesse Marsch.
The relationship between Marsch and Kljestan dates back to their days as teammates in the center of the Chivas USA midfield from 2006-09 and during Marsch’s stint as an assistant for the national team from 2010-11. The two have stayed in touch throughout Kljestan’s time in Europe, speaking a few times a year about everything from Kljestan’s career progression to each other’s families.
“When he became coach at New York, I think he already knew I’d be interested in playing for him and this team,” Kljestan says.
After Marsch was announced as head coach on Jan. 7, one of the first phone calls he made was to Kljestan.
“It always came back to that if I could find a place to call home as a head coach, I’d always enjoy having the chance to have him play for me,” Marsch says. “When I was appointed here in New York, he was one of the guys I immediately thought would be a great fit.”
In the Red Bulls, Marsch inherited a team that came up one goal short of the Eastern Conference Championship in 2014. That's the good. But the squad also lost, among others, Thierry Henry, arguably the league’s best player and a name that generated excitement among fans, and Australian World Cup star Tim Cahill.
Devoid of Henry’s leadership and marketability, Marsch needed to sign a statement player to symbolize his vision for the club. It just so happened to be an ideal time to float the idea to Kljestan, who saw his playing time with Anderlecht diminish in 2014.
Marsch sees Kljestan as a main candidate to fill the offensive gap left by Henry's departure. Kljestan will often play an attacking role behind the striker and, like Henry, may find himself wide on the left at times.
“I still scored a lot of goals in Belgium, had a lot of assists,” Kljestan says. “I certainly don't mind being higher up the field, closer to goal and setting up plays that lead to goals.”
Marsch lauded the player Kljestan has become since the two played together during Kljestan’s early years as a pro. To Marsch, Kljestan has become a complete midfielder capable of leading the Red Bulls by example on both sides of the ball.
“The player he has become is so much more sophisticated than he was a few years ago,” Marsch says. “When he was at Chivas, he had an eye for attacking plays around the goal, but in a lot of ways lacked awareness and commitment to do what it took on the other side of the ball.
“At Anderlecht, they demanded more from him on the defensive side and tactical side. It helped him develop a keener eye for how the game is supposed to be played. When you develop that side of things at a high level, at a club like Anderlecht, in that league, in Champions League, and getting tested at those levels, you can’t help but grow and learn and adjust.”
In the end, both Marsch and Kljestan are acutely aware that their fates are intertwined. If Marsch succeeds, it will likely have a lot to do with Kljestan’s impact.
Given the role he is being asked to play, if Kljestan fails to find a rich form, the team will likely struggle, and by extension Marsch may find himself in hot water.
“It is certainly helpful as a starting point to have past relationships with players,” Marsch says. “You know that you can count on each other and trust each other and push each other in the right way. For sure, I’m drawing on past relationships and relying on them to help us establish who we are going to become.”
For Kljestan, this is exactly what he signed up for. He knew all about the club’s front office changeover and the backlash from fans at the firing of Mike Petke.
“There’s always pressure when you play for a big club,” Kljestan says. “The Red Bulls haven’t won an MLS Cup yet, but they’re still one of the biggest clubs in MLS. We all just saw the passion of the fan base at that town hall meeting. You see they really care about this team. We are doing everything possible to put a product on the field that we hope fans will be proud of. … I want that weight on my shoulders.”