“It’s been great. You miss the little things after being in Europe for such a long time,” says Kljestan, who while playing in Brussels for Anderlecht got married and welcomed a daughter into the world. “Now to be closer to a lot of family and friends has been great for us as well. So off the field, A-plus.”
On the field, the grade is good if not quite that high as he adjusts to a much different league and team than when he left in 2010. The league’s decision to terminate the Chivas USA franchise after the 2014 season belies its record early in its existence, when its attendances and performances were respectable. Only later did it become a laughingstock, a test case of how not to do it.
“For me, personally, when I was there, we always had a very good team,” says Kljestan, an All-American at Seton Hall who was the fifth overall pick in the 2006 SuperDraft. “We made the playoffs every year [2006-09] we had good crowds, we had decent support. The team went down after I left and Brad Guzan left and Jonny Bornstein left.
“Off the field, it went down even worse. There were just not good people running that organization and when you don’t have that support system around the team, it is difficult. They didn’t give the players all the tools to succeed there. It’s a pity what happened but it’s probably the best for MLS.”
Another survivor of the Chivas USA era is NYRB head coach Jesse Marsch, a former teammate of Kljestan’s who shortly after being hired by the Red Bulls in January accelerated attempts to negotiate a transfer with Anderlecht. Last year, a maneuver by the Galaxy to sign Kljestan fell through -- that failure triggered the process by which it acquired Steven Gerrard -- when the league rejected the terms, and periodic difficulties raised concerns this deal might also run aground.
New York outflanked the Galaxy – which had traded Marcelo Sarvas to Colorado in exchange for the No. 3 slot in the league’s allocation order – by swinging a complex deal that claimed the No. 1 pick and midfielder Felipe Martins. New York gave up defender Ambroise Oyongo, midfielder Eric Alexander, allocation money, and an international roster slot. Even with L.A. out of the picture, the Red Bulls and MLS still had to reach an agreement with Anderlecht on a transfer fee and negotiate Kljestan’s salary. With a year and a half left on his contract, Kljestan’s rights carried some value.
“Yes, there were definitely different points where I didn’t think it was going to happen,” says Kljestan. “We had a lot of ups and downs. I spoke to Jesse for a while. That’s part of the negotiating process, with my salary and things like that. They wouldn’t budge, I wouldn’t budge. Finally, we all found an agreement where we could all be pretty happy.
“Then the transfer process was not easy also because MLS didn’t want to pay a transfer fee for me. We had to come up with some money and we had to ask Anderlecht for their help as well. I had a very good relationship with the board at Anderlecht and they knew this move was very important for me and my family. We worked that out as well.”
MLS paid a transfer fee -- as yet undisclosed -- and Kljestan’s contract does not classify him as a Designated Player, which means -- officially at least -- his annual salary is less than DP max of $436,250 in 2015. He could be upgraded to DP status in the future, yet the Red Bulls currently only have one DP, forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, so the secondary transfer window that opens July 8 might or might not yield a significant move.
During his one season at the helm of Montreal (2012), Marsch got to know Martins, and views pairing him up with Kljestan as a key piece in the team’s transformation.
“What I know about Felipe is he’s a competitor, he’s a smart player, he’s a young player  and he’s still got so much more to achieve and so much more growth,” says Marsch. “I knew this from when I worked with him before, that he’s the kind of guy I like to have in the middle of the field because of his mentality, because of the way he plays, because of the way he thinks.”
Mentality is probably the one aspect of Kljestan’s game that changed most dramatically at Anderlecht. Since his days at Seton Hall, the technical ability and vision and creative instincts were givens. At the pro and international levels, he learned the rigors of positioning, tactical acumen, tenacity and commitment to the cause.
The coaching of Bob Bradley, both with Chivas USA and the national team, and Preki along with the mentoring of Marsch erected the framework of a dependable, two-way player who would register 146 league and cup appearances and 18 goals for Anderlecht. The club won three league titles and
After the move to New York was confirmed, he bade a final farewell to fans at Constant Vanden Stock stadium and played 17 minutes of a 0-0 tie with Zulte Waregem Feb. 1. After the final whistle, fans unfurled a huge banner in tribute to him.
“There aren’t a lot of Americans who go to pretty big club in Europe and make a big impact on the team, on the community, and on the people around the club,” he says. “Brian McBride was a great example, he did that at Fulham, and I feel like I did that at Anderlecht, so to get a bit of recognition at the end, that was very cool for me and my family to have that send-off.
“The next day at the airport when I was actually flying out of Brussels for the last time, a lot of people came up to me at the airport and said, ‘Thanks for your service to Anderlecht, thanks for everything you did.’ That really meant a lot to me. It really felt special. I was a bit emotional that day.”
After undergoing medical tests in New Jersey, he flew to Florida and met up with the team for preseason training. “I didn’t get in until 1 a.m., he said, "so I met most of the guys the next morning at breakfast and then went right out onto the field for my first training session. I dove in head-first. I wanted the guys to get to know me as a player and as a person and earn their respect right away.”
The midfield mix is still sorting itself out. Dax McCarty handles the anchor role, there are several options out wide, and Martins and Kljestan often share the central duties. So far, Kljestan has scored two goals, registered one assist, committed 21 fouls, and earned four cautions. In road games he’s more of a conduit between defense and attack; at home he takes a greater attacking influence.
Marsch and sporting director Ali Curtis are still patching up NYRB’s relations with fans disgruntled over the dismissal of Mike Petke. Games like this Sunday’s visit to Seattle are crucial in the team’s quest to consistently contend for the title, lofty aspirations considering it has reached one final (2008) in its 20 years of operation.
“This club has all the tools to be successful and all the tools to be one of the best clubs in MLS,” says Kljestan. “That’s what we’re striving for. We have the best stadium in the league, one of the nicest training facilities in the league, and a support team. We don’t have to worry about anything except playing soccer and trying to be our best, and that’s what’s important.”
Also important is being home. He and his wife Jamie Lee have bought a house in New Jersey. He’s still getting used to the jarring differences between here and there.
“Our local supermarket in Brussels is only open on Sundays from nine to noon,” he notes. “So if we slept in a little bit or we had a busy morning we kind of missed out on groceries for that day. Things like that you take for granted and you miss them a little bit when you’re not living in the States.”
Kljestan's brother Gordon works for the Galaxy and visits often from Southern California, where they grew up. Along with propelling the Red Bulls, Sacha hopes to persuade Jurgen Klinsmann he deserves a regular place on the national team. He played only once for the USA last year after making seven appearances in 2013.
“Maybe now that I’m playing in MLS he’ll see more of my games on a consistent basis so he sees that I’m an accomplished player and also a leader,” says Kljestan, who has 46 caps and four goals for the USA. “I hope that he sees I can still bring some quality to his national team and be a positive impact. We’ll see. I’m doing my best to try and lead our team to be a championship team and I hope that will get recognized by the national team coach.”