Kljestan, Ibra: The ’Stash, the Nose … and the Armband

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by JACK BELL

It was a memorable, if not a defining moment in the professional soccer career of Sacha Kljestan.

After enduring a 5-0 caning at the hands of Paris St. Germain in a UEFA Champions League group stage match in Brussels in October 2013 — a game in which Zlatan Ibrahimovic torched Anderlecht for four goals, three in the first half — Kljestan was looking forward to the return match a few weeks later in the French capital.

“Our crowd gave him a standing ovation, which really pissed me off,” said Kljestan, now the midfield general and captain of the New York Red Bulls, who returned to MLS after a five seasons with the Belgian club.

In return match, which ended in a 1-1 tie (with Ibra, of course, getting the tying goal) the two sons of Bosnia traded insults. Ibrahimovic made fun of Kljestan’s mustache and Kljestan of Ibra’s proboscis.

“After a perfectly normal challenge, Ibrahimovic turned to me and provoked me, making a joke about my mustache,” Kljestan told the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “He said, ‘That really is terrible.’ I responded by telling him he should think about his nose.”

The nose knows.

The nose knows.

During the Red Bulls’ recent media day Kljestan, with the benefit of hindsight said: “He’s the type of player if you just watch him on TV you don’t understand how good he is until you actually get to play against him. The power that he has and the finesse at his size are amazing.”

After five seasons and more than 150 appearances for Anderlecht, including 14 games in the Champions League, Kljestan returned to MLS with the Red Bulls with all that experience in his back pocket. In 2016, the native of Huntington Beach, Calif., who played his college ball for Manny Schellscheidt at Seton Hall, a mere stone’s throw from Red Bull Arena, had a career year in MLS. He dished out 20 assists, good for second place in league history over a single season behind Carlos Valderrama’s 26.

“It’s hard to point to one thing [that carried over from Europe] for the most part being in training every day at a higher level than I was used to just turns you into a better player and better pro,” Kljestan said. “The most important thing I did when I was there was play Champions League. After one season of Champions League you start to think, ‘OK, I stood toe to toe with AC Milan and I did pretty well.’ The second year and third year I played against 12 of the best clubs in Europe. I never felt inferior. I felt I could play at that level. I felt I stood out in some of those games, that just gave me confidence and consistency to my game that I feel like I’ve held since them.”

His stellar play in MLS in 2016 put Kljestan back on the radar of the United States national team, now run again by Bruce Arena. Kljestan was one of the last cuts ahead of the 2014 World Cup and for all intents and purposes was absent from the conversation for several years until appearing in a pair of qualifiers last September..

“For me, he’s one of best players in this country, but for a long time we weren’t able to see him on the international stage,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “Then over the last couple of months we’re wondering how has this guy has not been on the international stage the last couple of years. We’re very, very fortunate to have a guy like that, not only in the locker room but on the field. It’s not only a situation of when Sacha speaks everyone listens, but when he’s on the field we take our cues from him.

Now the man with the armband.

Now the man with the armband.

“All I can say is that since I’ve been teammates with him I’m not only overly impressed with his work ethic, but his ability to communicate and acceptance to take on challenges. That’s the type of attitude that permeates the group and has allowed us to succeed.”

After the 2010 season at Chivas USA, Kljestan and MLS engaged in contract negotiations as some of the top clubs in Europe expressed interest in the rangy midfielder. A trial with Scotland’s Glasgow Celtic ended after MLS asked for an high transfer fee.

“I thought they were asking for a fee that was too high for the salary they were paying me, so I had my differences,” he said. “So do I re-sign with MLS and maybe spend my whole career here, which isn’t a bad move, or take that chance to finally get to go to Europe? There were some big clubs … I came close to going to Olympiacos, but that didn’t work out. Anderlecht stayed in touch with me for over a year and a half. I can’t be more proud that i made that decision because it was some of the best years of my life.”

With the trade of Dax McCarty to Chicago, the Red Bulls braintrust turned to Kljestan as the club’s new captain. The choice seemed obvious even as some fans lamented (and continue to lament) the departure of the popular McCarty.

“It wasn’t a choice at all, it’s a natural fit,” Coach Jesse Marsch said of his new captain. “This is a guy who’s our team leader right now. The players look to him. He has a quiet confidence that makes the people around him better. He’s a unique character who doesn’t need to be in the limelight or be a superstar … but he is.”