By FRANCO PANIZO
CLEVELAND – Speaking at his pre-game press conference on Tuesday, U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann made it clear that the pair of upcoming friendlies will serve as an opportunity for players to prove themselves and he even used the player sitting next to him as a prime example.
That player was Sacha Kljestan.
Klinsmann revealed during the press conference that he is set to give Kjestan his first U.S. start in two years and the first under his watch when the Americans battle Belgium on Wednesday night at FirstEnergy Stadium. Even more interesting is the fact that Kljestan will get that start in central midfield, where is often deployed for Pro League champions Anderlecht but rarely used under Klinsmann.
The absences of Michael Bradley, Danny Williams and other midfield options may have opened the door for Kljestan to earn his first start since Bob Bradley coached the U.S. to a 2-1 win over Honduras in the 2011 Gold Cup semifinals. But Kljestan’s form at the club level in recent months has convinced Klinsmann that the veteran midfielder is ready for a look in his more natural position.
“There’s a reason why Sacha is here,” said Klinsmann. “He won, again, the Belgian title and had to swallow a couple of pills over the last two years here because he’s not getting that many games as he hopes to get. But he deserves to be part of this strong group and now has the opportunity tomorrow to start in midfield alongside Jermaine Jones and playing against his second home country.
“It’s just a big compliment to him, how he performed all year round with Anderlecht and how every time he comes in here in camp, he shows his qualities to the entire group.”
Kljestan is no stranger to playing centrally. Aside from being deployed in the middle of the park for Anderlecht, Kljestan played primarily as a central midfielder when he broke onto the international scene in 2009.
In recent years, however, Klinsmann has opted to use the 27-year-old as a bench option for the wings. That might not be Kljestan’s preferred position but he does not mind playing there, especially since that versatility and flexibility have seen him go from often overlooked to a regular on U.S. rosters.
While Kljestan could further cement his place on the team with a solid showing on Wednesday against the nation he is quite familiar with, he is also looking at the friendly vs. Belgium as a test run for what could come in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Bradley and Jones, two of Klinsmann’s preferred starting midfielders, are one caution away from being suspended due to yellow-card accumulation and should that happen, Kljestan might be asked play in his preferred spot once again.
“It’s an honor to be with the national team (and) I’ll play whatever position is asked of me and I’ll do anything to help the team but I’m also excited to play at center midfield with Jermaine,” said Kljestan. “I know also that some guys have yellow cards coming in – I’m fortunate that Michael is not here so that now I get a chance to play – but if it so happens that Michael or Jermaine pick up a suspension at some point through qualifying, I want to prove to the coaches that I’m able to step in and do the job in the middle of the field and help the team as well, so I’m excited for that opportunity.”