JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sacha Kljestan thought his call-up to the US national team after a two-year absence was a prank. Now, the only joke is on anyone who didn't think the New York Red Bulls' playmaker could hack it in a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers.
Kljestan has two goals and two assist in the United States' last two matches, including the first goal in Tuesday night's 4-0 drubbing of Trinidad & Tobago, as the US closed out CONCACAF Group C with a pair of big victories and moved on to the Hexagonal stage as group champions.
And, for the first time in his 48 international appearances, Kljestan has scored in consecutive matches.
Tuesday's goal, Kljestan's sixth for his country, came in the 44th minute and knocked the Soca Warriors back on their heels just before halftime.
“It came at an important time,” Kljestan said. “That was the biggest thing for me, that we get into halftime winning 1-0. It puts them under more pressure. They don’t feel so confident coming out of the locker room at halftime. It just felt good. You could tell by my celebration that I was excited. It was right in front of the supporters group. It was a great moment for me. I’ll never forget it.”
Kljestan, who leads MLS with 15 assists, has taken his club form and replicated it at the international level.
He started the game as the more advanced central midfielder in the Americans’ 4-4-2 setup, providing distribution on offense and stepping into passing lanes on defense, forcing Trinidad & Tobago to find secondary options.
Michael Bradley’s versatility in the midfield made Tuesday’s transition seamless, US manager Jürgen Klinsmann said.
“I think the way Sacha now plays at the New York Red Bulls, this is a role that he really is good at and he brought himself back into this roster,” Klinsmann said. “So [I need to] make sure we give him the opportunity to play the No. 10 role. Automatically, that means Michael is more of the No. 6 in this game. Whether we need him as a No. 8 or a No. 10, it’s not a problem.”
Bradley’s suspension against St. Vincent and the Grenadines for caution accumulation, Jermaine Jones’ knee injury and Kyle Beckerman’s less-than-stellar Copa America showing created an opportunity for Kljestan. Despite the circumstances, Kljestan thought Klinsmann was kidding when he received his first call-up in more than two years.
Klejestan said his longstanding relationship with Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, which dates back to when both played for now-defunct Chivas USA, has been instrumental in his development and his return to the USMNT fold.
“We have a system and a style of play that benefits me," Kljestan said. "I have a coach that believes in me more than anyone else I have ever played for. Jesse is a guy, we played together for a long time. We have a great relationship. He really pushes me every day and he challenges me.
“At some point last season he told me ‘If we’re going to win something, you need to be the MVP of this league. You can play like the MVP of this league and you can be one of the best players in the league.’ Having a coach that has confidence like that has done wonders for me. His belief in me has been huge."