As the New York Red Bulls look to build on their Supporters’ Shield win by claiming a first ever MLS Cup title, Louis East looks at how Sacha Kljestan has inspired his team to glory in his first year back in MLS.
When Sacha Kljestan landed back on U.S. soil following his switch to the New York Red Bulls from Belgian giants Anderlecht in January, few predicted he would outshine the likes of Frank Lampard, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley as one of Major League Soccer’s outstanding central midfielders in 2015.
But after scoring eight goals and picking up 14 assists (fourth most in MLS in 2015), Kljestan has proved to be one of the league’s most dynamic midfield assets and his performances have helped the Red Bulls enjoy plenty of success this year.
When head coach Jesse Marsch joined the Red Bulls in early January, rumours immediately began pouring out of New York that Kljestan was a key transfer target, following a turbulent offseason that saw Designated Player’s Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill leave the club.
Marsch, who enjoyed four seasons playing alongside Kljestan at Chivas from 2006 to 2009, clearly knew that the powerful midfielder strengths and decided he would help transform the team’s fortunes following a mixed 2014 campaign. He wasn’t wrong.
Only seven players contributed to more goals in the 2015 regular season than Kljestan (22), with only one other central midfielder registering more goals and assists as Benny Feilhaber ended with a total of 25 combined. That puts into perspective how good Kljestan has been.
Let’s also not forget this is a player who joined the league after already playing 21 games for Anderlecht in the first four months of the Belgian side’s 2014-15 season. Tiredness proved to be no concern whatsoever as Kljestan started 33 of the Red Bulls’ 34 games – only Felipe and Luis Robles started all of them.
Despite playing 58 matches in just over 12 months, Kljestan looks as fresh as anyone else entering the MLS Cup Playoffs. He was the best player on the field against DC United on Sunday and it was his perfect free-kick to Dax McCarty that led to the winning goal.
New York now take a huge away goal into the home leg at Red Bull Arena on Sunday and are expected to sail through to the Conference Finals.
His relationship with McCarty in midfield is one of the best in Major League Soccer. It’s hardly a surprise given the fact the two have been alongside each other since they entered the game professionally nearly ten years ago.
Kljestan was taken with the fifth overall pick of the 2006 MLS SuperDraft by Chivas USA before McCarty immediately followed as Dallas used their sixth overall selection to pick the tenacious tackler.
They experienced different career paths but have wound up next to each other in one of the league’s most effective teams. A first ever MLS Cup title would represent the quality of their partnership and few could argue with the fact the Red Bulls’ have been the league’s most solid unit in 2015.
The club will now be preparing for Sunday’s huge Conference Semifinal second leg with DC. With Kljestan enjoying some of the best form of his season (one goal and three assists in his last three games), it’s hard to see the 2015 Supporters’ Shield winners losing.
How important is Sacha Kljestan to the New York Red Bulls?