Four days before he was announced as an MLS studio analyst for the league’s new MLS Season Pass broadcasts, 37-year-old Sacha Kljestan announced his retirement via a tweet that reached 1.8 million views.
A lanky, 6-foot-2 attacking midfielder (and almost always sporting a hefty black mustache), Kljestan garnered attention when he set Seton Hall University’s single-season record for assists with 15 and earning him a Generation adidas contract with MLS. He was taken fifth overall in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft by Chivas USA.
Seventeen years and over 700 professional appearances later, he never looked back. Until about four months ago.
“When Apple approached me, [retiring] wasn't on my radar — I was still just thinking about playing,” said Klestjan at MLS’s media day on Tuesday. “Like I always had. I was in denial for years that it was coming to a close. I've gotta give credit to my wife because she made it clear that I really needed to start thinking about the end of my career and processing that.”
Though he never did have the profile of the sleek stereotypical modern attacking midfielder, for a time Kljestan was considered one of the best U.S. central midfielders armed with a strong passing ability and nose for goal.
His career blossomed with the U.S. national team, for which he scored twice at the 2008 Olympics, but he was also one of the biggest names to be left off Bob Bradley’s 2010 World Cup roster. He then went on a five-year stint in Belgium as Anderlecht’s playmaker and he scored 25 goals and assisted on 21 in 180 games.
Kljestan returned to MLS in 2016 with Red Bulls where he helped Englishman Bradley Wright-Phillips (another MLS Season Pass hire) become the franchise’s all-time scorer, followed by stints in Orlando and most recently the LA Galaxy, near his hometown of Huntington Beach.
Kljestan is the eighth all-time MLS regular season leader in assists (99).
Sacha Kljestan, who played in the Olympics and earned 52 U.S. caps, played for MLS clubs Chivas USA, the Red Bulls, Orlando City and LA Galaxy. He also won three Belgian league titles with Anderlecht and played in nearly 30 UEFA Champions League and Europa League games.
SOCCER AMERICA: You just announced your retirement. Back so soon?
SACHA KLJESTAN: Yeah, it's pretty exciting. I had a lot of teammates that have had a difficult time through that transition. So having this offer to come work for Apple and MLS made retiring a lot easier.
SA: What was the timeline between you thinking of retiring and the offer from Apple? What kind of personal calculus went into the decision?
SACHA KLJESTAN: This started months ago, when Apple approached me. It wasn't on my radar — I was still just thinking about playing. That's all I've done my whole career. I've gotta give credit to my wife because she made it clear that I really needed to start thinking about the end of my career and processing that.
SA: But you really didn't want to. Had you ever?
SACHA KLJESTAN: No. I was in denial for years that it was coming to a close. She had me start speaking to a sports psychologist who really helped me through the end — it's like a feeling of loss, like a death of some part of you, so anyway — I was able to get through that and be ready to make a decision.
Having said all that, I was still contemplating playing again next season. But this offer was too good to pass up and I thought that it was really important to start the next part of my career.
SA: Did you have a deal with the Galaxy?
SACHA KLJESTAN: I was talking with the Galaxy about whether it all made sense for the both of us. In the end, I took a step back and just found that this offer and getting in with Apple in year one was just really exciting.
I'm excited to try to be the best at something again. I worked my whole career to be the best soccer player I could be, and now if I'm going to do something I want to give 100%.
SA: As a studio analyst, what is the steepest part of the learning curve?
SACHA KLJESTAN: The hardest thing for me will probably be having to be critical of friends of mine — guys I just played with and shared a locker room with — I'll have to call them out.
That's just tough, and I've heard from other broadcasters that sometimes, some friends take it too personally and it hurts relationships. It's difficult but it's part of the job. As a player, I always took my criticism and I was my biggest critic and I knew when I didn't play well anyway. That's part of being a professional athlete. That's going to be tough for me but I'm going to have to do it.
SA: What was helpful about speaking with a sports psychologist?
SACHA KLJESTAN: The first time we met it was very emotional for me, just talking about what it could possibly mean if my career ended. It's like a part of you died. A large part of me, that gave my entire life to this sport. Not a lot of people get to go out on their own terms, and so having to come to grips with that I could make that decision for myself and how fortunate I am to be able to do that, whereas other players go out via injury or things like that.
SA: Having the choice is scary too, though, right?
SACHA KLJESTAN: He was just very good at helping me see that like life, this end is inevitable, and you have to be able to accept it — it was just good to be open and talk about it and be prepared for the end. Like I said for a long time, 'I'm just going to play forever.' And it's denial. And it was hard because this was like four to five months ago. After a 17-year career ... but it was good. We spoke once a week and figured things out.
I was able to take a step back and realize that what I did was really remarkable. You don't often think that about yourself because it just becomes your life. I just played the game. But like, damn, I played in 700 professional games, and the Olympics, if I were a kid and someone told me that would be my life, I wouldn't believe it, you know?'
SA: How is fatherhood treating you?
SACHA KLJESTAN: I have two kids, my daughter 8, almost 9 and my son will be 6 in a couple of weeks. The thing I'll miss the most is their soccer games. They both play soccer and are very into it right now. But I will be able to take them to school and pick 'em up from school during the week. Take 'em to practice in the afternoons. That'll be cool to be there for them a lot more during the week — but I'll miss the weekends. Every so often I'll bring the family with me — we love New York.
congrats Sacha - as a Red Bulls ticket holder, thanks for your time and abilities; I thought you were the best midfielder/player in the league those Supporter Shield seasons...
Great ride. Now new phase.. Congrats.