Sacha Kljestan's 2016 form has him in Major League Soccer's MVP race
Sacha Kljestan is one of those players who seems to perpetually operate in stealth mode.
At 6-foot-1, and 170 pounds, he's far from an imposing physical presence on the field. He won't speed past you either. This isn't to say that Kljestan doesn't put in the work on both sides of the ball, but his game tends toward the cerebral. He almost glides into open spaces, barely causing any distraction at all. At which point, he finds the ball and usually plays a killer pass that allows the New York Red Bulls' attack to make the jump to lightspeed and strike at goal.
It's a scenario that Kljestan has repeated often this season, so much so in fact that he leads MLS with 14 assists. Yet his production kind of sneaks up on you. It was only recently that the Anaheim, California, native started to creep into the MVP conversation. Granted, New York struggled in the early part of the season, and it's tough to get noticed when trailing in the wake of reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco, who looks in line to win the award again. But in a country where No. 10s are scarce, it's an odd development that Kljestan's exploits aren't celebrated more. His play is nothing new either. He tallied eight goals and 14 assists last season when the Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield.
That lack of notoriety doesn't seem to weigh heavy on Kljestan. As he discussed his season ahead of Sunday's game against D.C. United (3 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), there was a satisfaction mixed with an awareness that there are still more games to play. The Red Bulls playoff flameout to the Columbus Crew last year ensures that the requisite hunger is still there. But he also recognizes that his team's high-pressing style suits him perfectly, in that New York's ability to win the ball in the attacking half of the attacking third allows him to do considerable damage.
"I think personally I've played at a pretty high level," Kljestan said by phone. "I don't know if I'm playing the best of my career because it's hard to compare one season to the next. Obviously at Anderlecht I had a few good years when I was playing at a very high level, but I was also playing in a different position where different parts of the game were affected. But I'm definitely happy with the way the season has gone."
Manager Jesse Marsch is certainly appreciative of his midfielder's performances. He reckons that, in New York's system, the three advanced midfield positions are the toughest to play in terms of the demands on both sides of the ball, as well as recognizing when to press and when to back off. Kljestan has excelled in all areas.
"There's a lot of talk lately about who are the best No. 10s in the league. Well, I'll tell you who the best No. 10 is for the way we play, and that's Sacha," Marsch said. "None of the other No. 10s could meet the physical demands of what we ask of them. That includes not just making plays in the attacking part of the field, but delivery on set pieces, understanding tactics, committing to the defensive role, committing to covering ground. He does that more and better than anyone, so his total game for me is at the highest level."
The two first crossed paths when Marsch was with the Chicago Fire and Kljestan was playing for the U.S. U20 national team, a match made more memorable by the fact that a creative force like Kljestan was wearing No. 9.
Marsch recalled: "Sigi [Schmid] and John Harkes were the coaches and I went up to them and said, 'Who is No. 9?' Sigi said, 'Kid named Kljestan. He's pretty good, huh?' I was like, 'He's good.' So I was playing against him in that game and he kind of had this shaky hair, and looked like an awkward, young kid. But you could tell that he had an ease with the way that he played within the game. He was good that day. We won 2-1, but he scored a good goal."
The two were later teammates at Chivas USA, and Kljestan made a name for himself as an emerging attacking force. But it was Kljestan's four-plus years with Belgian side Anderlecht where he developed the missing pieces in his game. Asked to play a box-to-box role, Kljestan became a more reliable defender and playing at a club where winning was expected led to more consistency.
"One of my coaches, Besnik Hasi, always talked about, 'We don't expect you to be a nine out of 10, but we also never expect you to be a five out of 10. You've always got to be like a seven out of 10. You've got to be the constant,' " Kljestan recalled. "I feel like the consistency in my game in terms of keeping possession, working hard, doing all that, my confidence must have grew and grew because I was getting to play Champions League, getting to play important games towards the end of the season when you're playing for a title."
When it came time for Marsch to look at bringing Kljestan to New York, the transformation in his eyes was obvious.
"You can't take a second off and I saw that when I went to watch him play," he said. " I saw a more mature player, I saw a more responsible player, I saw a more alert player, and I saw a much more effective player."
Two years on from that stint, Kljestan's mixture of skill and experience means he is now at the height of his powers. Which makes the fact that he has fallen out of the reckoning of U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann even tougher for him to stomach. Kljestan earned the last of his 46 caps in a 2-0 loss to the Ukraine in 2014. Granted, there are some talented youngsters like Christian Pulisic coming through, but it's still difficult to fathom why Kljestan has been completely shut out.
Kljestan admitted that his lack of impact at the international level -- he was one of the final cuts for the 2010 team as well -- leaves him wishing he had done more with his U.S. opportunities earlier in his career. But when asked about the current snub, he revealed that it confuses him more than it rankles him, especially given how the U.S. is in need of creativity.
"I wish I still had a chance to be on the national team now because I obviously have a ton of experience at this point in my career that I didn't have when I was younger," he said. "From a pure soccer standpoint, I don't see a ton of guys better, that have done it over a long period of time like I have. It's a small mystery to me."
That has left Kljestan to focus on his club commitments. The Red Bulls struggled for the first couple of months of the season, but have since righted themselves, and are almost back to the Shield-winning form of a year ago. New York's style is once again wreaking havoc on the rest of MLS.
"When we [press] at our best at a very high level, we feel like we can compete for a championship for sure," Kljestan said
Kljestan's level is already there.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.