“Bonjour, Sacha!” bellows the manager of the brasserie across the magnificent Sablon cathedral as Anderlecht and U.S. midfielder Sacha Kljestan strolls in for lunch.
Outside, the air is icy, damp and heavy with cigarette smoke. But inside, there is warmth. When Kljestan picks a table in the corner, a busboy scurries over to greet him. With a tidy mustache below his prominent nose, the neatly-dressed Kljestan is easily recognizable.
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The busboy, a season-ticket holder, hands him a pair of today’s papers opened to stories on him. One calls him the sparkplug in the middle of the field and lauds his now-fluent French. The other points out that with Kljestan in the lineup, Anderlecht has won 72 per cent of available points; without him: 42 per cent.
After winning the Belgian league in his second season with the club last year, Kljestan played in the UEFA Champions League this year. They remained in the hunt for a spot in the round of 16 until the final day in a tough group. Deputizing for Argentinian Lucas Biglia in the heart of Anderlecht’s 4-5-1, Kljestan has been in the middle of it all.
It’s been a strange and circuitous journey from Huntington Beach, California, to Brussels, where Kljestan and his wife of a few months, model and actress Jamie Lee Darley, found an unlikely happiness.
His father, Slavko, grew up in the former Yugoslavia striving to play professional soccer. Slavko’s own father disapproved and beat him for it. So Slavko fled their farm, took a job in a factory in Sarajevo and broke into pro soccer with Celik. Years later, having illegally crossed the Canadian border in the trunk of a car, Slavko settled and married in the U.S., the country where he wanted his sons to be born. First came Gordon, then Sacha. Slavko taught them the game as he knew it: nurture the ball with a sound technique.
Yet, ironically, Sacha was probably born in the wrong country. "My dad and my wife say the same thing," he says. "If I had been born in Belgium or somewhere, I’d be playing at a bigger club by now. I’d have had more opportunities when I was younger."
The U.S. produces so few technically sophisticated soccer players that when one does come along, it doesn’t know what to do with him. As a teen, Kljestan alternated between starring on state and Olympic Development Program teams and being cut from them. Coaches vacillated between two opinions of him: “His technique and vision are rare and precious” and “He’s too small.” Kljestan had no obvious physical gifts, but he hardly ever lost the ball and could make an offense sing with distribution, both rare traits for an American.
Some very prominent American coaches failed to spot any value in him. Former national team coach Steve Sampson cut Kljestan from an ODP team just 15 minutes into the first tryout. "I was only 17 and that was a really difficult point in my career," he says. "I was really small and skinny and my technique didn’t matter. I cried. I was sad. I was so angry I wanted to stop playing soccer altogether. My dad told me not to let one guy’s opinion change my belief in myself."
Kljestan was recruited late and lightly, but lit up college soccer at Seton Hall. Three years into his MLS career, where Chivas USA used him as an attacking midfielder, he made both the MLS All-Star team and its Best XI, and was named U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Athlete of the Year for his performances at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with the under-23 national team. The next year, he was EA Sports’ pick for the North American cover of its FIFA 10 video game.
He opened 2009 with a hat-trick against Sweden but faded from the senior national team picture after an ineffectual Confederations Cup. Kljestan’s problem was the same as it had always been, at every level. Bereft of sufficient technical players who can keep the ball, there was no spot for a distributor in the middle of the park; defensive cover was more of a priority in that part of the pitch. Indeed on the U.S. team, technical central midfielders are seldom given a chance in their natural spots. Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi, Jose Torres and, most notably, Freddy Adu have all found themselves in the same boat. There’s no role for them in the American system, so they’re banished to the wing, where none of them stick for long.
"We’re kind of pushed into being an all-out attacker because of our technique," says Kljestan. "But we’re not big goalscorers; we make the passes. You have to have certain qualities around the goal and I think my qualities are more keeping possession, keeping the ball moving."
Kljestan didn’t fit into Bob Bradley’s conservative 4-4-2 and missed the 2010 World Cup. With half a year left on his original MLS contract, Anderlecht bought him for $750,000 that summer. They had pursued him for years but only now did MLS waver from its $5 million asking price, realizing that after Kljestan had turned down their "embarrassingly low" (his words) contract offer, he might leave for free.
More irony: in order to fit into the lineup at Anderlecht, which appreciated him for his natural ability but already had a string-puller in Biglia, Kljestan has adapted a more box-to-box style, to the point where Het Laatste Nieuws, describes him as a "worker ant." Yet now that he finally plays in a position that fits into the national team concept, Kljestan isn’t considered for it. Instead, he says, Klinsmann has told him to "focus on being an attacking guy" – out on the wing, in other words. Still, it’s put him back into the picture. He came on as sub in the U.S.’s last three games.
Kljestan, who turned 27 on September 27, will be a free agent after next season. He’s been in talks over a new contract with Anderlecht for about six months. "I like it here and I can see myself staying here for a long time," he says. "The thing I always go back and forth about is if I’m going to make a move to Italy or England or France, at best I’d probably go to a sub-top team who is maybe hoping to qualify for Europa League. Here I’m playing every week to be a champion and have a chance to play in Champions League every year."
Besides, Biglia is rumored to be leaving soon, which means Kljestan could play in his natural position. For the first time in his life.