HANOVER, N.J. – Turns out that doing the little things is no longer a curse if you're a midfielder for the New York Red Bulls, especially if you are star midfielder Sacha Kljestan.
It was former Red Bulls head coach Bruce Arena who once infamously hailed Claudio Reyna, the team's first ever designated player signing, for all the “little things” he did in the midfield to make things click for club and country. Like Reyna, Kljestan has received similar praise from his current head coach, Jesse Marsch, who throughout the first 10 games of the MLS season has consistently invoked “little things” when talking about his midfielder's role with the team.
The difference is that Klejstan is actually making an impact with the Red Bulls, who sit in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 4-1-5 record. The only impact that Reyna made during his one and only season in MLS in 2007 was the imprint of his bottom on the trainer's table, such was the state of his injury-riddled time in the league.
But while Kljestan's numbers aren't gaudy – he has just two goals and an assist in 896 minutes played this season – his influence on the Red Bulls is undeniable. And it is the “little things” that Reyna didn't do that Kljestan is doing for this club.
“It's hard to define. I guess there is a certain pride in myself in training that my team doesn't lose very often. That no matter what team you put me on I can kind of get the guys to rally around me a little bit and challenge the rest of the guys that we're playing against,” Kljestan told Metro.
“That's one of the little things, I guess it's just my mentality when I come in. I feel like when guys know I'm on their team, they pick up their game a little because they know I'm going to be hard on them. I think that helps the group.”
There is also the sheer amount of mileage he puts up every game.
Under first-year head coach Jesse Marsch, the Red Bulls have overhauled their roster to go younger so as to implement a high-press system. In this scheme, the forwards and the midfielders will pressure the opposing backline, forcing their opponent to move the ball faster than they'd like and limit any type of patient build-up favored by most MLS clubs.
The result is a myriad of giveaways, rushed passes out of the backline and long balls pumped up the field that the Red Bulls can win easily this regaining possession. Kljestan, who came to the Red Bulls after six years with Belgium giants Anderlecht, fits that mold perfectly.
So far this year, he is averaging a shade over 12,000 meters run per match, which translates to 39,370 feet or 7.45 miles over the course of a 90-minute match. His highest work rate of any game this season came in the third game of the year when he covered a total of 13,232 meters or a little over eight miles in one match.
“I think Sacha in his best moments is so tuned into all the little plays and is able to cover ground. We get to to track how much ground each guy covers and not that that's the only indicator of if a guy plays well or not, it certainly isn't. Sacha covers the most ground of anyone on our team, every game,” Marsch said.
“Without fail, every single game he's covered the most ground. His alertness, his awareness his physical ability – if he needs to sprint, if he needs to shift, if he needs to move, whatever it is he's ready to go. He's made a bunch of little plays in the midfield where now it goes from one side to the next and he's got to either come back 20 yards or slide over 40 yards and typically he's in the spot we need him tactically and able to help us put out fires and able to help us win balls so we're able to go the other way
“And then able to go the other way we need to go into the attack.”
All of which contributes to a team that has defied expectations. The Red Bulls are the only team in the league with one loss and right now have put together a string of impressive results. It has surprised many, especially after an offseason where influential players such as Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Peguy Luyindula and Jamison Olave left a team that was within a game of the MLS Cup in 2014.
Enter the understated Kljestan, signed this offseason, who despite being a part of the United States national team pool isn't considered a huge draw, and suddenly the Red Bulls have a truly dynamic player in the midfield.
He's doing the little things that the big names like an Henry or a Cahill or a host of other prominent names couldn't or perhaps wouldn't do for this club. The end result is a team that is winning games and full of confidence.
All because of the “little things.”
“I think they are very important. Obviously statistics are a big part of soccer because goals and assists win you games. Soccer is a game about possession and putting the other team under pressure but it's also a game about plays in your defensive box and making plays in your attacking box,” Kljestan said.
“The more plays that I think can come up with and finish off is obviously going to help us a lot.”