Will Kljestan's U.S. return open doors for others to come in from the cold?
It was a very Jurgen Klinsmann-esque chance of redemption: A center-back gets injured so a creative midfielder gets called in from a long exile. But the emphatic manner in which Sacha Kljestan seized his unexpected chance, with two goals and two assists in the two games against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago, meant he looked a subsequent shoo-in for the latest U.S. roster. And the 31-year-old was duly called up this week.
His performance was no surprise to anyone who has watched the New York Red Bulls in the past couple of years, though even those who are high on Kljestan's movement, vision and eye for the killer assist were caught off-guard by the ease with which he reinserted himself into the national team. His renaissance with the Red Bulls was not an overnight affair, after all; it took time for Kljestan and his club teammates to get a reading on each other's habits and movements, though when they adapted to his habit of finding or creating pockets of space between opposition midfield and defensive lines, New York's players went on a charge that took them to the 2015 MLS Supporters' Shield.
Still, it's an occupational hazard for a creative player who operates in the way Kljestan does to be something of a slow burner as coaches and teammates figure out his game. But it's to the immense credit of Kljestan that, knowing from bitter experience that he was never likely to receive such indulgence under a national team coach who had already discarded him once, he made such an emphatic case for himself in such short order.
And in doing so he held out the tantalizing possibility of a much better-functioning U.S. midfield going forward. If he and Michael Bradley were to gel now -- and the signs last time out were encouraging rather than conclusive -- with Bradley sitting in his preferred No. 6 position and Kljestan operating as a cool No. 10, Klinsmann might just have stumbled on a midfield spine that finally makes sense of some of the hitherto awkwardly assorted parts around it.
That remains to be seen. But Kljestan's return has opened up some interesting possibilities for other players who might conceivably get a second look, just in case the success of this latest experiment prompts Klinsmann to dig out some old notebooks.
There's Benny Feilhaber, of course: another creative midfielder who went from playing in the 2010 World Cup to being on the outside looking in in 2014, despite maturing into a more effective player in the interim. Feilhaber hasn't made it easy for himself at times; his mouth has a habit of uttering things that might be on other players' minds but which they manage to filter before they hit the microphone. But then again, defenseman Brad Evans is no wallflower in public, and he seems to have managed to forge a respectable utility role under Klinsmann.
Feilhaber's not helped by being at a Sporting Kansas City team that has been somewhat indifferent this season, and he was also unfortunate that the 2015 performances that saw him shortlisted for league MVP happened to occur within the stellar context of Sebastian Giovinco's first season in the league. Outside of his Kansas City market, Feilhaber never quite got the column inches or appreciation he deserved, and those factors could have pushed him closer to Klinsmann's plans.
As it is, Feilhaber is in the last few months of his contract with Sporting, was the subject of a $500,000 bid from Israeli champions Hapoel Be'er Sheva just a few weeks ago and might well be off to Mexico in the offseason. Perhaps that will be the cue for Klinsmann to look at him again, just as the manager has started to take Omar Gonzalez more seriously since his game intensified south of the border.
Another intriguing possibility is Juan Agudelo, currently finding form in New England playing off Kei Kamara and looking a much more complete physical player than the rather cocky but undercooked version of himself that went to England too soon. Agudelo's talent is undeniable, and his current form is irresistible, but it's a very small sample size, and that's always been Agudelo's issue: The highlight reel is spectacular, but there's a lot of combing of footage to be done to come up with it.
Kljestan's case for inclusion can point to his being directly involved in 41 percent of his team's goals, during the Red Bulls' rise from losing six of their opening seven games to topping the Eastern Conference going into the final two games. Agudelo's most recent case, meanwhile, is based on a decent couple of months. But if he can continue his form into the postseason and his partnership with Kamara can mature in 2017, he could yet have his say in the Hexagonal.
There is one other potential redemption narrative at play in the current roster. Julian Green's inclusion in the 2014 World Cup squad, and the fact that he got a goal in the last stand against Belgium, got the hype train running. It says a lot about the expectation that we routinely heap on young U.S. players that his inclusion in this squad feels like a comeback, when after all, what has happened in the interim has merely been his club carefully handling his development and managing his inclusion into the Bayern Munich first-team squad, while his national team manager has monitored his progress.
Yet Green too has a point to prove on re-entering the national team picture. If he ends up playing off Kljestan for any portion of the forthcoming games, he'll get a firsthand reminder that it's never too late to be a comeback kid.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.