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Yanks Abroad

Kljestan on the Upswing for Both Club and Country

By fighting through adversity for the U.S. and Anderlecht, Sacha Kljestan has shown there is more to his game than smooth moves and a good engine. He has established himself as a scrappy survivor.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 03, 2013
5:13 AM
Sacha Kljestan is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man. Tall and slight with a hipster mustache, Kljestan comes across less like a professional soccer player and more like an MFA art student or a guy who runs a locavore restaurant in Williamsburg.

He doesn't seem particularly scrappy, but in 2012 the 27-year-old California native proved he has plenty of fight in him.

Benched by his new coach at Anderlecht and overlooked by U.S. national team decision maker Jurgen Klinsmann, Kljestan didn't pout or complain or take his foot off the pedal. He simply worked his tail off and worked his way back into both lineups. As a result, he finished 2012 on a high note, and the coming year looks to be full of promise.

“Overall, it's been a really, really good year,” Kljestan told American Soccer Now. “Certainly after celebrating my first [Belgian Super Cup] title, it was a nice way to start the summer. After that, I got married and that was the highlight of my life. Then we played in the Champions League and ended the year with a 10-game winning streak in the league."

Not bad at all. But events could have played out quite differently for Kljestan.

In the 2011-2012 season, Kljestan was an automatic starter at Anderlecht under coach Ariel Jacobs, but when Jacobs left to take the top job at FC Copenhagen and was replaced by John van den Brom, playing time was hard to come by.

Jacobs played a 4-2-3-1 formation with Kljestan and Argentine international Lucas Biglia occupying the two withdrawn midfield positions. When van den Brom was hired as coach, he wanted to play a Dutch 4-3-3, and Kljestan was the odd man out. Gradually, however, van den Brom came do discover that Anderlecht were a much better team with Kljestan on the field, and he brought the team back to its traditional 4-2-3-1 formation.

Clearly, Anderlecht now sees Kljestan as a precious commodity. In fact, Daniel Renders, a former Anderlecht assistant coach who is now in the club’s front office, recently spoke with the Belgian media and provided some astonishing statistics about Kljestan’s value.

Renders' analysis shows that in Anderlecht’s last 108 games (for a total of 324 possible points), the club has won 72.8% of all possible points with Kljestan on the field. In the 22 games where Kljestan did not play, the club accumulated just 42.4% of the points (28 out of 66).

"This is anything but a coincidence," Renders told the site DH just prior to the winter break. Kljestan and Biglia “need each other. Our captain is more free when the American is as well. He can leave the dirty work [to Kljestan], which is a job that often goes unnoticed, but it is so useful to a team. It has an exceptional importance in a game. For 90 minutes, [Kljestan] does not stop running and facilitates the play of others. He is always in motion and he is a true leader. I was not surprised to see him with the captain's armband when Lucas Biglia left the field a few weeks ago."

In this year's Champions League competition Anderlecht looked competitive but in the end failed to advance out of a group that featured AC Milan, Malaga, and Zenit St. Petersburg. The club finished in fourth place with five points but were still alive for advancement until the penultimate game.

It was Anderlecht's first appearance in the Champions League group stages since 2006, and Kljestan believe that despite the failure to advance out of the group stage, it was a valuable experience for both he and his teammates.

“It was a great experience not only for myself but also for the team,” Kljestan said of the Champions League. “It was a learning experience. It had been seven years since Anderlecht was in the Champions League so we made a few mistakes early on and we certainly paid for them in the end. I think as a team we underestimated ourselves. It bodes well for us in the future and I think we gained a lot of experience."

"For me personally," Kljestan continued, "I gained a lot of confidence from that tournament. I know my level as a player now and I’m happy with it. I played against some good players and stood my ground.”

Kljestan currently has 18 months left on his contract with Anderlecht, and discussions for a new deal are ongoing. There are also reports that with Biglia’s likely departure during the January transfer window, Kljestan may even become Anderlecht’s next captain.

“I don’t think there is a time when you can say I’ve done everything there is to do and I’m ready to move on because some players play at one club their entire life,” Kljestan said of his contract negotiations. “For me, I don’t lean one way or another right now. I’m open to anything and we’ll see what happens in the future. I try not to look too far into the future."

For the U.S. national team, Kljestan’s success at Anderlecht was simply too much for Klinsmann to ignore. In his first year as head coach, Klinsmann frequently said that the competition was steep in central midfield and he preferred Jose Torres, Danny Williams, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, and Jermaine Jones. With Kljestan playing in the Champions League, however, the California native earned a call-up for the crucial World Cup qualifiers in October—and performed well.

Kljestan’s hard work in 2012 now has him set to play a major role for both teams in the year ahead. Kljestan credits his success in the past 12 months to his willingness to continue to fight for his minutes and his confidence that he would prevail in the end.

“I think it’s a 100 percent mentality thing,” Kljestan explained. “I learned that early when I got to Anderlecht. I needed to prove myself continuously from the beginning that I really needed to be on the field. Whether it was growing up in football, or when I was at Chivas, or when I got to Anderlecht, certain players when they weren’t playing busted their asses until they had a chance to play again. That’s what I did. I saw other players who did the exact opposite and just moped, blamed everyone else except themselves, and didn’t look in the mirror.”

“I think with the national team, I just worked my way up with Anderlecht to be a starting player and a champion,” he added. “I know [Klinsmann] doesn’t like to change the team a lot but when he gave me my chance, I definitely grabbed it.”

During the early stages of Klinsmann’s tenure as U.S. coach, many believed that his omission of Kljestan was his single biggest misstep. Following Kljestan's performances during the last two qualifiers in the semifinal round, however, the player and coach have had positive discussions about Kljestan's role with the team.

“He’s been very open since I came back into the [recent] qualifiers,” Kljestan said of Klinsmann. “He said ‘I know it took you longer than you wanted to get here and I know you’ve been busting your ass to get here. But now that you’re here, give it your best to stay here.’ He was open about it and he recognized that maybe I had deserved to be there a little bit earlier but he didn’t want to make a bunch of changes in the team. So when I did get there, I made the most of it. I think it’s been good since then.”

Part of Kljestan’s importance to the U.S. national team is that the team is very much at a crossroads with several important players. The most obvious area of concern is the attacking midfield role. Landon Donovan, the team’s all-time leading scorer, has owned that position for some time but is now reportedly contemplating retirement.

At Anderlecht, Kljestan plays a box-to-box role in the midfield. For the national team, Klinsmann has asked Kljestan to play a more attacking role, at least in part to help fill the huge void left by Donovan.

“Since I’ve come [back into the national team], Klinsmann has asked me to be a bit more on the attacking side, which I have no problem with," Kljestan said. "I am open to playing anywhere on the field and I think I can help the team in many different ways. I think Klinsmann is pretty set on Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Danny Williams as the three central midfielders. I’ve tried to basically take advantage of Landon being missing. He’s that attacking, creative guy that usually comes off the left or the right. I think the coaches see me there as well."

"We all want Landon back on the team to continue his career," Kljestan continued. "But if he’s taking time off, at this point early in the Hexagonal, I hope that if I’m the one replacing him and getting minutes that I’ll be successful and help the team.”

What do you think of Kljestan's re-emergence in 2012? Do you think he will play a significant role in the Hexagonal? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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