U.S. U-23 head coach Peter Nowak has the same issues juggling his domestic and European-based players for Olympic qualifying as does Bob Bradley with the national team, yet he's assigned the role of captain to Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan.
When Clint Dempsey played a seemingly innocuous ball to him near the sideline early in his national team debut against China last June, Sacha Kljestan knew what to do: Find the man on the move.
Out of a congested midfield he spotted former U.S. under-20 teammate Benny Feilhaber slicing behind the Chinese back line. Kljestan looped a ball forward that Feilhaber ran onto and tapped over a charging goalkeeper to break a 1-1 tie. It held up to be the winning goal.
First cap/first assist isn't as dramatic as scoring on your debut, as other Americans - most recently defender Eddie Robinson against Switzerland in January - have done, yet as Kljestan has shown for the U.S. at several levels and with Chivas USA, his forte is forging chances, not necessarily taking them.
"Sacha just sent me through," said Feilhaber, neatly encapsulating the skillful yet simple manner in which Kljestan goes about his business. He'll play an important role as the under-23s attempt to qualify in March for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Many of the age-eligible Americans, including Feilhaber and Michael Bradley (Heerenveen), may not be released by their European clubs for the CONCACAF competition from which two teams qualify. So the MLS contingent of Kljestan, Stuart Holden (Houston), Dax McCarty (FC Dallas), Maurice Edu and Marvell Wynne (Toronto) could be among the midfield components Coach Peter Nowak counts on to get the team through qualifying.
"I have been getting the picture of what we're trying to accomplish with all of U.S. Soccer in general, things we're trying to change," says Kljestan, who played a season for U.S. head coach Bob Bradley during his rookie season with Chivas USA. "Peter trusts me, and I trust him. We have a lot of faith in each other, which is cool, because Peter's a great guy to play for."
Nowak and Bradley, for all their reluctance to publicly single out players for praise, are pushing the buttons on Kljestan. As busy as he was playing for the under-23s, national team and Chivas USA in 2007, this year is loaded up with club commitments and Olympic and World Cup qualifiers.
"It's good for me," says Kljestan. "I didn't have much of an offseason my first two years in the league but I'd rather be doing all these camps than being somewhere on vacation. My vacation time will come; now's the time to put in the work. It's a big year for myself and for the Olympic team and the national team."
SUMMER SCHOOL. A month after his national team debut, Kljestan started against Paraguay and played the full 90 minutes against Colombia in the Copa America. In the latter game, he misfired on a header that could have tied the game after playing a first-time ball - similar to his feed to Feilhaber - that Charlie Davies squared to Eddie Johnson, who couldn't put the chance away. Colombia held on to win, 1-0.
"I was disappointed that I missed my header and that we lost, though I thought I played well," says Kljestan. "But playing against those teams in that tournament was fantastic and can only help us get better as a team."
He finished the MLS regular season tied for second in assists with 13 as Chivas USA won the Western Conference before falling in the playoffs. As a rookie for Bradley, he'd played in the middle alongside veteran Jesse Marsch. When ex-assistant Preki took over for the 2007 season, he stationed Kljestan to the right side yet gave him license to work the middle, much as the coach himself had done during a brilliant playing career.
"The game has changed all over the world," says Preki, whose devious cutbacks and chops to his left foot as he drifted inside from the right wing befuddled defenders in Europe and America, indoors and outdoors. "The creative players, the attacking players, whatever you want to call them, are most likely to play outside, because there's a little bit more room, more time to get on the ball. That's why we put Sacha in that position."
Kljestan's season included a two-game suspension and $1,000 fine for chopping down Real Salt Lake midfielder Andy Williams with a two-footed tackle. The foul put Williams out of action for more than a month. Paced by the service of Kljestan and the scoring of Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo, Chivas USA rolled through the season until injuries to both forwards derailed its momentum.
Lacking Razov and with Galindo still hobbled, Chivas USA failed to score in the playoffs and was eliminated by Kansas City. In those two games, Kljestan got a few good looks at goal, but couldn't add to the four goals he scored during the regular season. The Wizards advanced, 1-0, on aggregate.
There wasn't much time to brood. Kljestan, keeper Brad Guzan, and defender Jonathan Bornstein were picked for the U.S. squad against South Africa, and thus Kljestan added another continent to his 2007 travel ledger. He played the final 17 minutes as the U.S. fought off a South African onslaught to preserve a 1-0 win.
Attention to the defensive side of the game is being preached by both Preki and Nowak. Kljestan's height (6-foot-1) offers advantages, but he's rather spindly (150 pounds) and must be tougher on the ball so as not to be knocked off it. "He's a very good kid, a good listener, and we're just trying to push him to the next level, because he does have all the tools if he wants to work a little more on the physical side of the game and the defensive side of his game," says Preki.
The other sides of his game are enticing. His touch, his two-footedness, his craftiness, and his soccer intelligence set him apart from most products of American colleges. Like Preki, Kljestan's heritage is Serbian, and for decades players from Yugoslavia and other Eastern European players have been famous for their flair. Preki grew up in Belgrade and played for Red Star; Sacha's father, raised near Sarajevo, left Europe more than two decades ago.
"It's not just Yugoslavia, there are players from many countries who are more clever, a different class, to see the next pass, players who have an idea before the ball comes to him," says Preki. "They have a very good idea of what's around them when they have the ball.
"Now we're trying to get Sacha, even though he's a technical guy, he can still get better technically."
COLLEGE LESSONS. Kljestan played his college ball at Seton Hall for Manfred Schellscheidt, who numbers among his disciples preaching coordination of ball movement and player movement one Bob Bradley.
"He understands the game so well," says Schellscheidt. "It's his mentality, how he sees the game, not so much his physical qualities.
"He's very good on the ball. With a lot of guys, the ball gets in the way. With him the ball becomes a weapon. The other expression I would use is a lot of guys play the music, he writes the music. He's got ideas, he's a composer."
The presence of an uncle in New Jersey, not far from the Seton Hall campus, eased Kljestan's transition from sunny California.
"It was pretty cool to have some family out there," says Kljestan, whose brother Gordon played for the Pirates at the same time. "Me and my brother would cruise down there on the weekends and have dinner and stuff like that, he came to every game. He lived like 45 minutes from the school. It was fun."
His first international call-up came during his sophomore year at Seton Hall. The annual Ballymena Tournament in Northern Ireland is a regular stop for U.S. U-20 teams, and head coach Sigi Schmid - who also was based in Southern California - brought him into the team. He played in two U-20 qualifiers and earned a spot on the U.S. team that finished 11th in the 2005 U-20 World Cup. He scored nine goals and 15 assists in his junior year at Seton Hall, then opted to enter the MLS SuperDraft.
"He's a gifted kid," says Schellscheidt. "There's a saying that, 'You can only be the things you remember,' and he has the capacity to make great memories. How many guys can do something 1,000 times and it's like they're doing it for the first time. It's because they can't make a memory, you know what I'm saying?"
CHINA PASSAGE.Last December came a return to another continent, Asia, which Kljestan had visited with the under-23s the previous February. For a two-game trip to China, host nation for the 2008 Olympics, Nowak named him team captain. The coach, though, downplays relying on the captain, or anybody else, all the time.
"Of course, Sacha is more experienced than let's say Robbie Rogers or Jozy Altidore," says Nowak of the appointment. "But on the field, you have the leaders. No one is extra special. I think the strongest teams in the world, they don't have a leader you can say, 'This is the one.' The days are over with saying one player can change the game by being a leader."
As captain, Kljestan attended press conferences with the head coach. One such session produced a question that might have flustered most young players.
Kljestan controlled the tricky query and dispatched it effortlessly. Asked if the women of Hunan province are cute, he responded, laughing. "Everyone that we have been around in Changsha has been very nice and very lovely to us. They have treated us very well. As for the rest, I can't answer that question."
In the second game of the tour, a 3-3 tie, Kljestan set up the first goal with a very different pass than his assist for Feilhaber. He flicked a Wynne throw-in to Rogers, who smashed a volley into the net. China rallied from a 3-0 halftime deficit to earn the tie and in the final minutes, Kljestan, playing the captain's role, tried to quell a ruckus involving Altidore, and instead got himself sent off.
"Peter makes a big deal about team unity and chemistry and all that stuff," says Kljestan, who grew up in Southern California admiring the play of Preki and Nowak in MLS. "The team has really responded to not just knowing our roles on the team, but what we're trying to accomplish as a country."
During his teen years, Kljestan won an MLS fantasy league competition among his brother and their friends. As a prize, he could request a signed playing card of any MLS player. It was duly delivered and he has kept it, framed, in his parent's home. The player? Preki.
"I don't remember who was on my [fantasy] team, but I'm sure Preki and Peter were on there," he recalls. "Preki was scoring all those goals and assists, so he was putting up all my points, probably."
Four years ago, the U.S. stumbled in the regional semifinals against Mexico and failed to qualify for the Olympics. Such an encounter is possible, since the CONCACAF powers are in different first-round groups and could be paired off again if one finishes first and the other second.
Nowak has used him in several different midfield spots and he could well play one role during the qualifiers and another in the Olympics, assuming the U.S. qualifies, depending on the form and availability of players. But getting to Beijing supersedes all else.
"Positionally, I don't think we've fully decided yet," says Kljestan of his spot on the field. "I've played on the right and I've actually played a game on the left. Mainly with the Olympic team I've been playing in the middle of midfield, which is nice because I've played that my first year in the league. We don't know for sure on the field, but off the field being a leader and speaking with the guys is the role we've talked about.
"We're going to be favored to qualify for the Olympics. This team, I've been with them for a quite a while, and different guys have come in and out. But this core group of guys we have and the way we move the ball and the way we keep it and the way we defend, I really have a special feeling about this team
(This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)