Photo by ISIphotos.com
While there are other MLS first round series that get more attention, the Chivas USA-Real Salt Lake battle has enough storylines to make it just as appealing as the rest. You have the expansion class of 2004 meeting for the first time in the playoffs, Real Salt Lake making its playoff debut and Alecko Eskandarian facing his former club and entering the playoffs healthy for the first time since winning MLS Cup MVP honors in 2004.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked yet significant storylines involves Chivas USA standout Sacha Kljestan, who just might be set to play his last MLS matches before a transfer to Europe this winter.
A target of several clubs last summer, including Steve McClaren-led FC Twente, Kljestan admits that he has thought about this being his last hurrah in MLS.
"It’s very present in my mind," Kljestan said of the possibility that this could be his last playoffs in MLS. "I think this is the year we’re really going to go for it, and for me it’s special because a championship is something I’ve never won on any level."
Kljestan was quick to clarify that while he has thought about a potential transfer, his focus is on the playoffs and make up for last season’s disappointing post-season.
"I’m with Chivas right now and my main goal is to win the championship," Kljestan said. "(Last year’s playoff loss to Kansas City) stung a bit but it’s always tough going into the playoff without a few guys that are regulars in your lineup.
"This year we feel a bit more confident with guys coming back from injury," Kljestan said. "I think at this point in the season we’re stronger (than last year). Our mentality was better last year, but this season we’ve got more depth and a few more players."
Chivas USA enjoyed a strong end to the season, posting a 6-2-1 record in the final nine regular season matches. While players such as Alecko Eskandarian, Atiba Harris and Justin Braun stepped up with key goals during that stretch, Kljestan was dealing with the rigors of balancing U.S. national team call-ups with his club commitments.
That juggling act, that included Kljestan starting three straight World Cup qualifiers, has impacted Kljestan’s club form and he admits to still being in search of his top early-season form, the form that led to a handful of highlight reel goals and increased interest from European suitors.
"Earlier in the season I had more in my step, I was finishing off my chances," Kljestan said. "I think it’s been tough to find a rhythm going back and forth (between Chivas USA and the U.S. national team."
That struggle aside, Kljestan has enjoyed a dream year that has seen him play in the Olympics, establish himself on the senior national team and grow into one of the league’s best midfielders. He has also learned from his time with the national team, particularly in the area dealing with mistakes. Kljestan has been known to have stretches where turnovers can be an issue.
"If I mess up a play or two I feel like I have to make that special next play," Kljestan said. " The national team coaches have told me not to do that and just keep the game moving. Early in my career I would press the issue and try to force a beautiful ball in and commit too many turnovers."
With his game continuing to evolve, the 23-year-old midfielder is becoming a more well-rounded player and more attractive prospect to foreign clubs looking for creative talent. Before he starts giving serious thought to that, and the January transfer window, Kljestan has unfinished business. He has never won a championship and Chivas USA has never won a playoff series. He will try to make both happen while also putting on a strong showing in what could be his MLS farewell.
"The series with Real Salt Lake is going to be a tough one, but we’re going to enjoy every minute of it," Kljestan said. "Our goal is to win a title and, in MLS, that means winning four games. It’s anybody’s title to win and I believe we have the team to do it."