While the New York Red Bulls often pride themselves on not having built their team around one superstar talent, Sacha Kljestan continues to define himself as a key playmaker in the side’s dangerous attack.
Sunday’s 4-1 win against rivals New York City FC again proved Kljestan’s worth, as the attacking midfielder assisted on the Red Bulls’ first two goals before notching a finish of his own just minutes before the halftime whistle.
Kljestan’s quality and consistently are nothing new for the veteran midfielder, but his league-leading 12 assists on the season have become more important recently as the Red Bulls find their groove again in the Eastern Conference.
In 2016, the Red Bulls have gone 6-1-2 in the nine matches where Kljestan has either scored or assisted a goal.
It took 20 minutes for the Red Bulls to find a breakthrough, but it was Kljestan’s patience and vision that created the team’s first goal after he found an open Bradley Wright-Phillips in between two NYCFC defenders.
“The best part of that play was my first touch because typically I look to play the ball to Brad every time but both of them almost shifted to Brad as I took my first touch so I was able to create some space for myself,” Kljestan said of the team’s first goal. “In order to calm myself down and create some space and then they started to come back to me and Brad was wide open. I think he did a really good job of running the line and not being offsides.”
The 30-year-old has the benefit of playing alongside talents like Wright-Phillips and Mike Grella, but it has been Kljestan’s decision-making that has made him so dangerous throughout his career in MLS.
Shortly after setting up Wright-Phillips for his 10th goal of the season, before scoring a second later, Kljestan’s tantalizing corner kick in the 23rd minute picked out Ronald Zubar for the game’s second goal, further separating the Red Bulls from their cross-river rivals.
As a unit, the Red Bulls are known for their relentless high pressure, but head coach Jesse Marsch acknowledged during his postgame press conference just how important it was for the home side to take advantage of NYCFC’s spacing.
“With the way that they pressure, we felt like we could do certain things to gain advantages in certain parts of the field, which would then leave Sacha to find gaps in their team and then whenever Sacha is catching balls in important spots his first option is Brad,” Marsch said.
The NYCFC backline appeared out of sorts for much of the afternoon, particularly centerbacks Jefferson Mena and Fredrick Brillant, however, Kljestan and the rest of the Red Bulls attack managed to exploit the openings left by Patrick Vieira’s group to perfection.
Kljestan and the rest of the Red Bulls stressed midweek the importance of a good performance against NYCFC in front of their home crowd, but the MLS veteran insisted that his personal preparation was nothing out of the ordinary in the buildup to Sunday’s victory.
“It’s not like I prepare any differently,” Kljestan said of his performance. “I think this week helped just going into the game. I tried to make sure my mentality was at an all-time high. I wasn’t going to let little things bother me. I wasn’t going to let the ref bother me. I wasn’t going to let the heat play a factor for me.”