The New York Red Bulls had played 62 lackluster minutes against Alianza FC in the CONCACAF Champions League at Red Bull Arena on Thursday night. It was a match they were favorites to win, but they weren’t getting the job done up until that crucial minute when Sacha Kljestan was called on to come off the bench and make a difference.
Like he’s managed to do for the past two seasons, make a difference he did. In the final minute of the match, Kljestan latched onto a centered ball from Gonzalo Veron and deposited it into the back of the net for the match-winning goal.
It wasn’t the prettiest or cleanest of finishes, but it was most certainly effective.
“Effective” is an interesting phrase when talking about Sacha Kljestan. Under Bob Bradley and at the beginning of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure, “effective” isn’t a word I’d describe his play with the national team. He more or less just existed and coasted along while continuously getting call-ups despite being an above-average and consistent performer at the club level in a pretty good European league.
As a box-to-box midfielder he was overshadowed by Michael Bradley and didn’t fit within any of the national team’s setups whether it be a flat midfield or two holding midfielders in a five-man midfield. Playing deeper in the formation and being asked to be responsible defensively, he was always just there. Never a detriment to the team, but never someone who would catch your eye.
This is my opinion. Perhaps you felt differently during that time, but Jurgen Klinsmann must’ve agreed because he stopped calling him up. Over two years went by without Kljestan’s name appearing on a Klinsmann roster. After moving to MLS and totally reinventing himself as a pure attacking midfielder, he’s back on the radar for the national team. His two goals in two matches in the most recent World Cup qualifiers should be enough to earn him more opportunities just as his consistently impactful club play that got him his reprieve should too.
Moments like this dramatic goal against Alianza are what Kljestan has built his new identity as a premier playmaker off of. Constantly turning up in big moments and providing the final product, be it a finish or a final pass, are what have transformed him into a true difference maker.
So far, he’s shown no signs of tapering off against international competition. His dynamic play at the club level is exactly what we saw against Vincy Heat and Trinidad & Tobago. While it’s way too soon to label him a vital player for the national team, he’s on the path to becoming one.
You’d be forgiven if you thought Kljestan’s newfound playmaking abilities were a fluke or a mirage a year ago. Now it’s just who he has transformed himself into thanks to hard work and opportunity. The Red Bulls gave him the chance to be their primary playmaker and he’s arguably become an MLS MVP candidate.
Jurgen Klinsmann would be wise to give him the same chance with the national team. Considering the other options available to play as a true No. 10, what does he have to lose? It’s time to give him the keys and see how far he can get the USMNT’s attack.