HARRISON, N.J. – Jesse Marsch's first memories of Sacha Kljestan came years ago when he was a player in MLS during the preseason, a career journey for both men as their lives have been consistently intertwined over the past few years.
Now head coach of the New York Red Bulls, Marsch recalls being a member of the Chicago Fire and scrimmaging the U-20 national team of which Kljestan was a member. It was a fairly typical preseason game for the then Fire midfielder, but he remembers seeing something that was anything but typical on the other side of the field.
That took the form of a young player who scored in the game against the MLS side, a player who was a member of the Seton Hall soccer team at the time and still an amateur. And now that player sat to Marsch's right on Tuesday when the Red Bulls unveiled Kljestan as their biggest signing of the offseason, a United States national team player who returns to MLS from playing in Europe.
“I even asked their staff after the game 'Who was this wiry guy playing in the middle of the field, he's not bad.' They said he's Sacha Kljestan . I said 'Yea, I'm going to keep track of him. Years go by and Bob Bradley drafts him at Chivas USA. It was kind of the first year for all of us to go there. Sacha was a big draft pick that year,” Marsch said on Tuesday.
The year was 2006 and Bradley, who would go on to coach the national team in the 2010 World Cup, pulled aside the now veteran Marsch and gave him the project of Kljestan, to help him “in the maturation process.” It was something that Marsch loved the idea of doing.
And in turn, Kljestan turned to be more than adept at being the pupil. He would go on to have a solid rookie year and grow every season until leaving MLS in 2010.
“He pushed himself every day to try and be as good as he possibly can be. And he quickly moved himself up the ladder to be a bigtime player for that club,” Marsch said.
“Maybe one of the biggest ever to play for that club.”
Fate would bring them together again when Marsch joined Bradley's national team staff and Kljestan would end up being a part of the player pool for the 2010 World Cup team. He seemed like a given to make the final roster but instead was left on the outside looking in, something Marsch refers to as “the toughest moment I've ever had as a coach and I think we went thought that together.”
Now he gets the chance to bring Kljestan back to MLS, a testament to how the league has grown and improved since he left for Europe in 2010. He was one of the stars of Anderlecht, the powerhouse team of Belgium's top division and a side that regularly plays in the Champions League.
Marsch expects the player to bring that same pedigree and philosophy that made him a star of European soccer to MLS. It was a hunger, Marsch said, that was born from the disappointment of being cut from the World Cup roster in 2010.
“When he went to Anderlecht, he took that with him. He had a stronger desire to prove himself and to prove what he's about,” Marsch said. “If you look at his five-year time in Anderlecht, in Belgium – the championships he won, the success he had, the Champions League games he played in – those are great. I was there firsthand two years ago when he won the championship, won that trophy, won that league – and the way the fans treated him, the way the organization treated him, the way everyone appreciated everything he was about, I think spoke volumes for an American to go to a big club like that, to be welcomed, to be treated like a hero.”