Top Stories

After years away, Kljestan cements USMNT spot with standout performances

Photo by Logan Bowles/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Logan Bowles/USA TODAY Sports

It was an iconic pose. Stood several feet above his teammates, arms raised into the Jacksonville sky, Sacha Kljestan’s finally had his moment. It was a split-second reaction to a goal several years in the making, one which Kljestan believed would never come. But when it did, Kljestan simply jumped up, taking it all in, as he cemented a return to a team that seemed to have passed him by.

Excluded from the U.S. Men’s National Team for the better part of two years, Kljestan’s international career appeared all but over. Uncapped since 2014, a call-up was wishful thinking, and the most recent roster did nothing to alleviate the disappointment. Once again, Kljestan was left off, as the U.S. moved towards a pair of World Cup qualifiers without the New York Red Bulls star.

But, in need of an injury replacement, Kljestan finally received the call for what appeared to be a last-gasp chance at reclaiming his international career. Now, less than two weeks after suffering through yet another disappointment, Kljestan is firmly back in the fold. After returning with a goal and two assists against St. Vincent & The Grenadines, Kljestan fired the U.S. into the lead with the first of four goals against Trindad & Tobago in a shutout win. It was a goal that meant so much to the USMNT, but even more to a 30-year-old midfielder who wanted nothing more than a second chance.

“It came at an important time, and that was the biggest thing for me,” Kljestan said. “We get into halftime winning 1-0 and it puts them under more pressure. They don’t feel so confident coming out of the locker room after halftime. It just felt good. You can tell by my celebration that I was excited. It was right in front of the supporters group. It was a great moment for me. I’ll never forget it.”

“I had my head down for the past year-and-a-half, working hard, wondering if it would ever come. I was not sure if it would. Fortunately, the call came from Jurgen and he gave me a chance to prove myself with these last two games as well. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way the last nine days have gone.”

With 46 international caps prior to the most recent World Cup camp, Kljestan was far from a USMNT neophyte. He had played in a Copa America, an Olympic tournament, a Confederations Cup and a Gold Cup throughout his international career, firmly cementing himself as one of Bob Bradley’s most frequent call-ups following his 2007 debut.

But under Jurgen Klinsmann, Kljestan fell back towards the pack. After appearing plenty of times throughout Klinsmann’s first few years in charge, Kljestan made just one solitary appearance in 2014 in what proved to be his last call-up prior to the most recent qualifiers. Kljestan was in the USMNT wasteland and, as other midfielders began to prop themselves up, it didn’t appear he would ever come back.

After scoring only four goals in his first 46 international appearances, Kljestan’s two goals have done wonders for that perception. The pair of performances showed growth, and Klinsmann has taken notice.

“He helped his case big time. That’s what happens in soccer all the time,” the USMNT coach said. “Some players come in for whatever reason, if it’s suspensions, if it’s injuries. Other ones get their call and we always tell them, no matter if you were gone for two years, this is your chance now. Don’t worry, the door is always open. He understood that from the first second on. From the first training session on he was on fire in this camp. 10 days.

“It’s just great to see, because now we’re going towards the Hexagonal. We’re talking about Russia 2018. Things will heat up. We want the younger ones to push it even more, that’s why we bringing Paul Arriola, that’s why we bring in Caleb Stanko. I want these guys to send some signals out there. Sacha absolutely took advantage of his opportunity. And I told him already welcome back for next time.”

Kljestan says the transition back into the USMNT team was easy. Playing alongside Michael Bradley once again, the 30-year-old midfielder felt right at home. With Bradley holding down a majority of the defensive duties, Kljestan was given free reign to make plays by making his mark in the attacking half of the field.

It was a system similar to that deployed by his club team, the Red Bulls. After contributing eight goals and 14 assists in 2015, Kljestan leads the league with 15 assists this season. One of MLS’ elite playmakers, Kljestan’s game has reached a new level, as the Red Bulls are once again soaring towards a postseason berth.

Now nearly two years into his stay with the club, Kljestan says he has grown leaps and bounds under the tutelage of former Chivas USA teammate Jesse Marsch, a coach that has helped make Kljestan a much better player than the one who last wore a USMNT shirt in 2014.

“I think we have a system and a style of play that really benefits me,” Kljestan said, “and I have a coach that believes in me more than anybody else I’ve ever played for. Jesse is a guy, we played together for a long time and we have a great relationship. He really pushes me everyday and he challenges me.

“At some point last season, he told me, ‘If we’re going to win something, you need to be the MVP of this league, and you can be the MVP of this league. You can be one of the best players in the league’. Having a coach that has confidence like that has done wonders for me. His belief in me has been huge.”

Kljestan now has the belief of Klinsmann heading into the biggest games of the qualifying cycle. A match with Mexico looms large as the USMNT head towards the Hex, while fellow powerhouse Costa Rica awaits right after. It’s a stretch of games that will require a USMNT group at their best and, if Tuesday’s performance was any indication, they may be getting there.

Right in the middle of that performance was Kljestan. After several years in the USMNT wilderness, the 30-year-old midfielder is back, and may be vital to the team’s hopes going forward.

“I’m feeling confident,” Kljestan said. “I feel like my level of play is at a very consistent level as well. I just hope to be back in with this team and to contribute any way that I can. “


  1. I think “cemented” in this case likely refers to Klinsmann’s comment that he will invite Kljestan to the next camp:

    “Sacha absolutely took advantage of his opportunity. And I told him already welcome back for next time.”

  2. I have to agree with others here that the concept that Kljestan has “Cemented” a spot with the team after 2 matches against inferior opponents is a bit much. Yes Kljestan played well and was able to score a couple goals and generate a couple of assists, but lets remember that this was against a semi pro team and a team that had already qualified for the next round.
    I’d say that Kljestan has earned the right to be called up for the next 2 camps (October Friendlies & November Qualifiers) but he will have to continue to impress in order to stay in consideration. During the first half of last nights game I thought Kljestan was actually fairly poor. His energy and tempo of play wasn’t equal/level with his teammates. The second half was much better, but I still saw the disconnect and a lack of energy at times. If he can’t take his energy level and tempo of play up a couple of notches I don’t see him being a viable solution against better competition.

    • To be fair the entire team perhaps minus Pulisic looked like they were playing in wet cement the first 30 minutes. Whether it was testing the tired legs from the heat and travel in St V or just not wanting to concede early no one looked great or especially energized. The difference we’ve seen with this group since Guatemala in Columbus has been once they get up they look to blow people out (with the exception of the red card games against Ecuador and Paraguay). Trinidad is currently ranked 4th in Concacaf finishing there in the hex what put them in a playoff with someone like Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia where they would have probably a 50/50 chance to qualify for the world cup so they aren’t exactly chumps.

  3. Finding proper player combinations has been something that JK has seemed to struggle with throughout his tenure as manager. Kljestan worked very well with Pulisic, Johnson, and Jozy in the attacking third last night, and with Pulisic in both matches. This will gain him more looks, I think. He deserves it based on these two appearances and his excellent stretch of club form.

    • True he looked good with those players, but that was mainly after a weaker T&T opened up. If the game stayed 0-0 andT&T didn’t have to go after it, it would have stayed the same. Although, SK, Jozy and Pulisic did look like they were giving T&T trouble all night

    • Yep. I’ll concede it was only two games, one of them against an embarrassingly weak opponent, but the MNT doesn’t get to play 20 games to find out what combinations work, and Kljestan and Pulisic (and FabJo) were obviously reading from the same script. Kljestan may not be fastest or flashiest AM, but his chemistry with Pulisic was a revelation. At a minimum, I hope the “Bradley as attacking MF” era is over.

    • Let’s not forget, too, that the team that played T&T was missing about 5 players who played regularly in the Copa. So, while the opposition was weak, it wasn’t quite our first team, either. Even if Kljestan continues to play well, he will have a tough time breaking into the line-up when all the regulars are there. And with Pulisic showing so well, it will make it even more difficult. If Dempsey remains out, then Altidore/Woods seem like the regulars up top, but after that there is a real log jam. Pulisic, Zardes, Bedoya, J Jones, Bradley, and Kljestan all have shown they belong on the team and behind them you have Nagbe, Zusi, and Beckerman who can play. That’s 9 midfielders available during the Hex, barring injury. The only place we are not deep right now is L
      B where we have been playing F Johnson and if he doesn’t play there, then the midfield becomes even more crowded. It’s a good problem to have, and it creates plenty of opportunities for fans to bitch and moan about player selections.

  4. Cement? Nobody cements anything against CONCACAF minnows. He did well, earned another callup for sure, but his position is very crowded with young talent.

  5. On somewhat related note i’d love to see Jesse Marsch get a shot as National Team Coach after WC 2018. He’s transformed RBNY over the past two years, doing more with less (salary-wise) and implementing an exciting, uptempo style. Marsch may have turned off some MLS fans with his complaints re officiating this season but he’s worth a look.

  6. JJ/MB/Beckerman/Bedoya will start the next match barring injuries. Don’t expect proactive soccer from this coach. Remember, a defender had to get injured for Sasha to even get called in. He was not being considered. That shows how good JK is at recognizing talent.

    • Everyone wants to act like Klinsmann flexed his genius with Sacha but forget that he was a late callup. Klinsmann is notoriously stubborn. Really shocked that he got out there before Nagbe though.

      • He gets the credit and the blame. That’s fairly normal for a manager, but our SBI viewers still find a way to only give him one.

        The other half to that equation is Kljestan actually producing. As a manager, I’d be stubborn too in giving him a chance if he continued to fail when given opportunities to make any notable impact. People (not surprisingly) conveniently forget Kljestan was under-performing under Bradley for a long stretch before his departure, too, and it only continued under Klinsmann.

        Yes, Klinsmann gets the credit for utilzing Kljestan just as he would be given flack for continuing to call up someone that simply didn’t showcase any value at the international level for years and finally decided to do so.

      • @Old – therein lies the problem, JK has continually called up players that have been pitiful for their club and when they have come into the NAT set up. We don’t now what goes on behind the scenes but when the manager publicly states that a players club form will dictate a call up and he does a 180 and calls in a underwhelming player people are going to raise questions about it. Sasha has been hit or miss over the span of his career but he has played well for more than a year and it does seem this call up was over due and “lucked into”, due to injury. He is a needed commodity for this team if he continues playing this way so lets hope his good vein of form

      • I, too, hope he can maintain this level of impact but I’ll remain skeptical. The competition was suspect and historically (over the last 5 years) Kljestan has been pedestrian at the international level.

        JK has continually called up players that have been pitiful for their club and when they have come into the NAT set up.

        Altidore wouldn’t have received any call ups since leaving the Netherlands if that philosophy was held true. I think people in the media and fans pay too much attention to soundbites from managers and expect them to have no exceptions or adapt on the go.

        I don’t care what he says, personally, and don’t dictate my judgement of what I see on the pitch according to statements to the media. It’s all fluff that no one should concern themselves with. The only thing that matters is what’s said in the locker room.

      • I don’t have to tell you, but for others new here, it quickly becomes obvious that mamny posters ever emphasize, exaggerate, or cherry pick facts in order to fit their pre-conceived notions. I used to watch Kljestan back in his first days at Chivas. His career has had plenty of ups and downs. When JK called him in a couple of years ago, it was pretty universally agreed that he had a couple of really bad games. He has improved considerably in the last year and a half at the Red Bulls, so he gets called in when there is an opening. He showed in these two games that he has, indeed, improved considerably. There’s no story beyond that except for people who want to try and come up with something to run down or applaud the sagacity of JK.

      • Gary, it was universally agreed that Klinsmann was playing Kljesten out of position, playing him on the wing, and not putting him in a position to succeed. That has been a consistent and universal criticism of Klinsmann. Glad to see Klinsmann appears to be coming around, although he is doing it at a glacial pace.

      • UCLA Bruin–From Wikipedia: “While at Anderlecht, Kljestan was converted from his traditional number 10 role to a holding midfielder; where he partnered with Argentine Lucas Biglia. Together the two formed a strong partnership which lead Kljestan to his first ever title,” Also, it is worth noting that he last played for the US, before this last week, in 2014. in 2014 he had been reduced to a bench player at Anderlecht.

      • Gary I don’t get where you are going with that wiki post, doesn’t really relate to what I said or you said before. You said Kljesten was bad in his first Klinsmann appearances, which many would agree with. And I said Klinsmann was playing Kljesten on the wing and out of position, which is true and many would agree with. From your own post Kljesten is a center-mid, either advanced or holding, not a winger. This time Klinsmann played Kljesten in his correct position which helps Kljesten look better than before.

    • Yea, the headline further cements my suspicion that SBI staff trolls for clicks/comments.

      This is international soccer where 6 months from now we’ll likely see new faces and 12 months from now we could see a drastically different roster based on form, injury and other unforeseen factors.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Nagbe because i found myself wondering what the hell happened to him. He looks awesome in friendlies leading up to the Copa, barely plays when the Copa plays out and now he can’t get off the bench for the NATS for WCQ’s. I find it hard to believe there isn’t a position for this guy either from the start or as a sub, he has too much quality, so it makes you wonder what he is or isn’t showing in training! I keep hearing that he is a defensive liability, don’t know if i agree with that, but over the years there have been defensive liabilities littered in the squad that didn’t have half his ability and played in big games, so what gives SBI nation?!

      • JK said after the match Sacha shown in training from the first session to the last session. One would have to believe Nagbe is not playing as well in training and he has been on pretty average form with Timbers this season as well. I wonder if the increased schedule due to nat duty is weighing on him a bit this year.

      • Here is what I wrote before the last two qualifiers: I compared Nagbe to Dembele of Tottenham/Belgium. They both have a good skill set and look really good on the ball and on the field. However, their production doesn’t seem to be very high in terms of assists or goals. I said that Kljestan is much more likely to make the good through pass that leads to a goal than Nagbe.

      • “he has too much quality” really? dude was pretty anonymous when he came on in Copa, not sure about defensive liability, but something is up. It may be that he is half-step slow for international game. I would pay money to see JK’s evaluation sheet for Nagbe right now.

Leave a Comment