CARSON, Calif. — Nobody's happier to join the LA Galaxy this year than Sacha Kljestan, who's returning home for the first time in a decade and getting the opportunity to perform with the club he's cheered on since Major League Soccer debuted.
The 34-year-old midfielder, signed in November as a free agent after two seasons with Orlando City SC, says his return to Dignity Health Sports Park — where he featured for four and a half years with Chivas USA — is a huge boon for his family.
“It's real meaningful for me, but I think also for my wife and kids, too. And the rest of my local family that's from here,” said Kljestan, who grew up in nearby Huntington Beach. “The first five years at Chivas was awesome for me and my family, because every other weekend the whole family got together and they would eat dinner down here in Carson and then they would come to the game and they would all sit together, and that became a family tradition.”
It's a bigger family, now. Kljestan and his wife, model Jamie Lee Darley, have two children, and there's a new set of in-laws, and the clan plans to resume their game-day ritual.
“Just for all of them to get together every other weekend and for all of us to be close to each other again is really nice,” he said. “And then to play for the team that I grew up supporting, it's a pretty awesome way to get this at the ending part of my career.”
He's not the only Kljestan with the Galaxy. His older brother, Gordon, whom he played alongside at Seton Hall University and who had a stint with the New York Red Bulls a dozen years ago, has been part of the club since 2011. He served as director of soccer operations for nearly three years before a very recent promotion to senior director of soccer operations.
With a father who played professionally in Sarajevo, Kljestan was runner-up to teammate Jonathan Bornstein for MLS Rookie of the Year in 2006 and a key figure in Chivas USA's success over his first four seasons before heading to RSC Anderlecht, where he won three Belgian Jupiler League and four Belgian Cup titles. He returned to MLS in 2015 and played two and a half years with the Red Bulls and then moved on to Orlando City.
He's been one of MLS's finest American attacking midfielders — and can be a box-to-box guy, as he primarily was in 56 appearances for the US national team — but his role for LA figures to be more nuanced.
“I think I'm going to be a leader in this group, a guy that the young guys will look up to and understand what it means to be a professional and what it means to take yourself to the next level everyday in training,” Kljestan said. “I'm 34 now, but I still feel like I can get better everyday in training. That's something I've never given up on.
“So [my role will be] to challenge these guys, to try to help change the mentality of this club. And then how I fit into the midfield, I think, will be determined over the preseason. See how I fit in with Jonathan dos Santos, Sebastian Lletget and Joe Corona, so it will be interesting to see, but I think I'll be doing a lot of work on the training pitch to help these guys.”
Kljestan said he believes he could be an every-game player if called upon to do that, “but I don't expect to be.” More likely he'll be an option off the bench and spot-starter who's sure to see his share of action. LA has real depth in midfield, at each spot, and he provides real pedigree in that role.
“I think depth is key in MLS, especially when you start playing a lot of games over the summer,” he said. “So, hopefully, we have a good rotation of guys in the midfield and we all step up.”
Even when he was playing for the club's Super Clasico rivals, the Galaxy always had a piece of his heart.
“I never rooted against the Galaxy,” he said. “I just always wanted to beat them when I played them because I had to play for my team. But deep down, I was always a Galaxy fan. I grew up going to the games at the Rose Bowl with my dad and brother, so to have me and my brother both at the club now is pretty awesome for my family.
“I think we're all pretty proud of what we're doing now.”