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A Kljestan Move: Pros & Cons
by Ridge Mahoney, January 26th, 2009 5PM

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Watching Sacha Kljestan take apart Sweden Saturday at Home Depot Center could convince anyone he's primed and ready for a move overseas, yet success isn't preordained for young Americans going to top-flight teams.

And it may not be the best move for Kljestan at this point in his career, unless Celtic sees in him the talents and attributes it needs in the next few months, not in a few years.

If Americans go to top-level teams as players destined to fight for a place among the regulars, the experience can be discouraging and daunting, yet no different than that faced by most other first-team prospects. Starts and playing time are earned, not doled out benevolently, and so the strongest and sharpest fare best.

Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra both went to English Premier League club Fulham with a few years of MLS experience, and as foreign players expected to contribute sooner rather than later. Dempsey has recently regained a place in the starting lineup; Bocanegra left last summer for Rennes after playing more than 100 EPL games in 4 and a half seasons.

They didn't start every game and sometimes waited weeks on the bench for a few minutes of action. Welcome to the real world. That might be Kljestan's fate.

But if they are regarded as long-term projects despite a few years of MLS experience, they can languish rather than flourish at a critical phase in their careers. The difference in age between Kljestan (23) and Jozy Altidore (19) is a vast one; Altidore, with less than two years of MLS experience prior to joining Villarreal last summer, may chafe sitting on the bench, but the lessons he learns in training and limited action are valuable; whereas for Kljestan, should he be mired behind five other central midfielders on the Celtic roster, would quickly stagnate.

Kljestan is far from the finished, polished professional prototype, yet he needs games, pressure, battles and conflicts to sharpen his vision and skills, as well as the other elements of playing central midfield. At HDC on Saturday, yes, he scored with a stunning free kick, clinical penalty, and precise first-time strike, yet he also covered a lot of ground in midfield, passed smartly, and did his share of tracking back and tackling.

Coaches Preki, Bob Bradley and Peter Nowak have been harping on Kljestan for years about broadening his game, and he's responded well, if not magnificently. They don't expect him to turn into Gennaro Gattuso, the hard-nosed midfielder of Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning team, but they do insist on effort, commitment, and concentration. As will Celtic coach Gordon Strachan, among others.

Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini isn't concerned with Jozy 2010, per se, and won't be influenced one iota by his prospects in South Africa. He doesn't want Altidore out somewhere on loan, at least not yet; the coach intends to observe and critique and shape this exciting young prospect by daily criticism and counseling.

Theoretically, Altidore going on loan could increase his playing time, but only if that team is in desperate need of help up top, and is willing to throw him straight into the lineup. Is Altidore ready to face experienced La Liga defenders week after week bearing the staggering responsibility to score or else? Is that the best environment at this stage of his development? The answers are no, and definitely not.

In the case of Altidore playing on loan for a struggling team and not scoring off the bat, he could be benched by a coach far less interested in his long-term development. Going to a team in a lower division or another league is an option but not necessarily a viable one. Just ask Freddy Adu, stuck on the bench at Monaco while on loan from Benfica.

There's no sadder case than that of Adu, who played far more than his performance merited in MLS, and now can't find a European club willing to put him on the field. In effect, he's the same age as Altidore with far more pro experience, but in a much worse position. Dues are usually paid up front but not in Adu's case.

At Glasgow Rangers, there are two Americans pining for playing time. Maurice Edu, who turns 23 in April and won the league's Rookie of the Year award in 2007, has barely played since moving to Scotland after the 2008 Olympic Games. DaMarcus Beasley, a veteran of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups yet still only 26, has been sidelined by injuries. He's at the stage of his career at which every game missed sets him back a little more.

Edu has expressed disappointment about his lack of playing time yet is growing as a player and a person just by being in a foreign country and training every day. But those benefits will soon fade.

Maybe a move to Rangers with a year and a half of pro experience wasn't in Edu's best interests, but Rangers offered $5 million. TFC and MLS said yes. If Celtic is offering $2.9 million, as has been reported, is that sufficient for Kljestan's three years of service to Chivas USA, and the year remaining on his contract? Or should Chivas USA take the same stance as did FC Dallas with Kenny Cooper last summer, and just say no?

A move to Celtic or any club has short-term implications - next summer's Confederations Cup and Gold Cup, the 2010 World Cup - for Kljestan and Bradley, as well as long-term effects on both player and coach. But once out of MLS, the player's learning curve steepens sharply, and not everybody ascends it steadily.

 



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