HANOVER, N.J. – A decade ago, New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch and midfielder Sacha Kljestan called themselves teammates at a team called Chivas USA, a team that is now defunct and lost to the sometimes quirky history that is MLS. But it was in those early moments as teammates that the veteran Marsch and the rookie Kljestan, separated by 11 years, made an instant connection.
A connection that led to them being reunited here this season for the Red Bulls. But it was a connection that, 10 years earlier, Kljestan was hoping would never happen.
It was 2006 and Kljestan was coming off a star-studded collegiate career at nearby Seton Hall. He was a member of the Olympic team and a rising star, a sure-fire stud at the MLS level. Everything seemed to point towards Kljestan being drafted by the local team, just two months prior to the MetroStars being bought by Red Bull and being rebranded.
In January at the MLS Combine, Kljestan had met with then general manager Alexi Lalas. Kljestan didn’t participate at the event because of a slight knee injury but he still went down for the week. In that meeting, he got the impression from Lalas that the MetroStars would select him with the fifth overall pick. It all made sense as they needed a central midfielder and he was the local boy.
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It all seemed so easy.
Instead, Lalas rocked the league on draft day by trading up for the top pick and selecting Marvell Wynne, a speedy right back. Kljestan went from thinking he’d be playing professional soccer in the shadows of his old school to now wondering where his landing spot would be. Concern began to set in.
“I was actually more worried about being chosen second, third or fourth. I was very worried about getting chosen second, third or fourth,” Kljestan told Metro.
“Salt Lake was second, didn’t want to go there. Columbus was third, where I didn’t want to go either and Kansas City was fourth. Back then, those were three organizations that weren’t doing well at the time and three cities I wasn’t looking forward to living in.”
He admits that “I was praying Chivas would pick me” – a funny dream considering that Chivas USA had finished bottom of the league the season before. Chivas USA had hired former MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley and they selected Kljestan fifth overall.
It was there at Chivas USA where Kljestan would thrive, learning under Bradley, who would eventually leave to become head coach of the national team. But it was also at Chivas where he first met Jesse Marsch, then a player in MLS.
Marsch was a bit of a legend around MLS, a gritty and hard nosed player who had been around since the inaugural season in 1996. Sometimes, his fight and determination masked a very nice ability to hold the ball under pressure and some accurate passing. Marsch was being brought in by Bradley to help the spine of a team that had struggled mightily the season before.
It was in that first training session as a professional soccer player that Kljestan met Marsch for the first time. Now, a decade removed from the practice fields of the Home Depot Center in Carson, CA, Marsch stands with a whistle in his mouth at the Red Bulls training center, watching Kljestan play.
But it wasn’t always that way. Kljestan remembers watching the man who would one day become his head coach as a player at Chivas.
“I remember on our very first training session, we played a small-sided game and he was the best player on the pitch, by far. I can still remember the field we were on, the way the game was set-up, I was very impressed with him,” Kljestan said.
“I came in knowing he was a player who had some won titles in Chicago. But I didn’t really know about him as a player because when you watched the Chicago Fire, you want Piotr Nowak and Ante Razov and those guys. But in those first 30 minutes, I learned a lot about him.
“Not only that, at the end of that training, we did some long-distance fitness on the track. I tried to keep up with him. We were following his example in that too.”
When Marsch became the Red Bulls head coach this past January, the first player he wanted to bring in was Kljestan. In 2010, Kljestan left MLS and Chivas for Anderlecht, the top team in Belgium and a perennial Champions League side. He forged a good career there and eventually would earn 46 appearances with the United States national team. His final match at Anderlecht, the fans serenaded him before the match, such was their love for the American who plays every match like it is his last.
As loved as he was with the Belgium giants, he wanted to return home and Marsch wanted him on his new squad. Marsch was rebuilding the Red Bulls to focus on fitness and a high-press style. Kljestan was the perfect fit.
Weeks later and following a trade to obtain the top spot in the allocation order, he was holding up a Red Bulls jersey at a ceremony at the stadium. After 10 years from the time when Kljestan had a dream of being a draft pick of the MetroStars but found himself in southern California with a teammate named Marsch, the two were united again.
He’s had a splendid year in his return to MLS, the 30-year old midfielder has eight goals and leads the team with 14 assists. After nearly every match, he also leads the team in miles logged, a key stat for Marsch’s system, a system that saw the Red Bulls win the Eastern Conference and capture the Supporters Shield.
Now with the second-leg of the playoffs this Sunday at Red Bull Arena, Marsch and Kljestan are two games away from their team hosting the MLS Cup.
“When I first met Sacha, he was a kid. But he was a likeable kid and he was a great player. That’s the thing. If I were to go back to that first training session, I remember how smooth and easy and effortless he was in that first session and I was like ‘This kid is good.’ He handles his emotions better than I did, I wore my emotions on my sleeve,” Marsch told Metro.
“And he was a much more talented player than I ever was. One of the reasons I wanted to bring him here is we spent a lot of hard times together and came out of it in a good way and knew how each other operated. I knew if I could bring him here, that he would help me establish what we wanted out ream to be. This season he’s exceeded every expectation I had for him, and I had very high expectations.”