I was completely wrong about Sacha Kljestan.
Surely, I wasn’t the only one. There are many out there like me, but I’d like to take this opportunity to admit my mistakes.
Before 2014, Sacha Kljestan was a middling U.S. national team member who was plying his trade in Europe and really just floating along not making much of an impact. Every now and again you’d hear his name pop up with a goal scored or something of that nature, but eventually he’d fade back into irrelevance.
After years of gaining USMNT call-ups on the regular, they just stopped coming for whatever reason. March of 2014 was the last time we saw Kljestan in a national team match until his late inclusion in the most recent roster.
Admittedly, I was completely fine with his omission from the team for these last few years. In his previous appearances he was much like Alejandro Bedoya, he worked hard on both sides of the ball but never really influenced the team in an impactful way. He wasn’t good enough defensively to be a holding midfielder nor dynamic enough to be a No. 10. He was simply one in a very long line of American box-to-box midfielders fighting for 2 or 3 spaces.
Something changed two years ago when he left Belgium and joined the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer. Not to compare it to a religious awakening, but Sacha Kljestan found himself in MLS. Allowed to become a true No. 10 playmaker with the Red Bulls, he began to flourish in that role. Numbers don’t lie and 22 assists in the last season and a half proves he’s become one of the top playmakers in the league.
I saw the numbers. Jurgen Klinsmann did too. I didn’t want to believe it. I came up with justifications for his production being a fluke — “I saw this guy be mediocre for too long to care.” — Then something interesting happened. He just kept going and going, becoming one of the most valuable players in MLS. Soon with every passing roster Klinsmann released it became harder and harder to justify Kljestan’s absence.
Finally he got the call (well text, actually). It had been so long since his last call-up that he actually thought the text he received was a prank being pulled on him. That just tells you what his and everyone else’s mindset has been toward Kljestan and Klinsmann’s roster choices. I had written off any chance of him coming back a long time ago. I’m sure, deep down, he probably did too.
Yet, he really did get the call. Klinsmann, like I’m doing right now, admitted his mistake and owned up to it. It’s not like he started doing anything special in the last few months that he hadn’t been doing for the last 16 months. For some random reason, Jurgen just decided it was time.
Now, of course Kljestan’s 1 goal, 2 assist performance against Vincy Heat has to be prefaced with “Well, it’s just Vincy Heat.” But, it doesn’t matter who the U.S. were playing, when he came on as a second half substitute, he changed the game like no other U.S. playmaker has in a very long time. His whole demeanor on the ball has improved dramatically. Couple that with his incisive and confident decision making along with the precise passing he showed, Sacha Kljestan looked like the real deal.
While it’s too early to crown him the long lost No. 10 the USMNT have been seeking for years, it’s enough of a sample size to expect him to get an increased number of chances in more difficult circumstances.
I was wrong about Sacha Kljestan. He should’ve been getting call-ups for the last year or so. He’s more than earned it by completely transforming himself into a dynamic player. The player that was middling in the USMNT player pool 3 years ago is not the same player that stepped out on the field in Kingstown on Friday and changed the game. He’s a revamped and re-energized difference maker who can undoubtedly help the national team the rest of this World Cup cycle.
Kljestan has proven himself worthy of a spot and is probably and justifiably laughing at all of us who had written him off. So, kudos to him for becoming a player impossible to ignore. I’m big enough to admit my mistake and I look forward to seeing him get another chance to impact the national team soon.