Kljestan's arrival is fashionably late
Sacha Kljestan scored a hat trick in the U.S.' 3-2 win over Sweden on Saturday
23-year-old midfielder is turning into one of biggest new stars on national team
Kljestan spent trial at Scottish power Celtic, which may buy him from Chivas USA
CARSON, Calif. -- Sacha Kljestan turned his 13th U.S. national-team appearance into his lucky day, scoring his first three international goals all in the same match, a 3-2 win over Sweden in Saturday's friendly.
It may have been a slight delay in making a scoring impact for the U.S., but it fits Kljestan's pattern of flying slightly under the radar. With that performance, and with overseas clubs interested in a transfer, the midfielder is now flying high.
Back in 2005, Kljestan wasn't the most heralded player on the U.S. team that competed at the Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands. That honor went to Freddy Adu, who showed off precocious ball skills as a young teenager. Kljestan wasn't the breakout star of the U.S. squad either. That distinction belonged to Benny Feilhaber, the Brazilian-born player who caught eyes with his U-20 performance and eventually signed a pro contract overseas.
In contrast, Kljestan had to content himself with a sub's role at the tournament and the confidence-undermining frustration of putting in an own-goal vs. Italy, a game that eliminated the U.S. from contention.
It got worse for Kljestan a year later. He wasn't the No. 1 pick in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft, but he reportedly wasn't even the first choice of coach Bob Bradley, at the time in charge of Chivas USA. Bradley was said to favor Yura Movsisyan, who was stronger and more imposing than the slender Kljestan. But Movsisyan was snatched up before Chivas USA's No. 5 pick, so Bradley took Kljestan instead.
Yet as the classic tortoise-and-hare story demonstrates, steady progress sometimes is ultimately the more rewarding route. Kljestan's development may have been incremental, but it's notable that he has improved steadily and consistently every year, outpacing many of his contemporaries. In fact, Kljestan's play was one of the few bright spots for the young U.S. team that flamed out in the group stage at last summer's Beijing Olympics.
Now, with a hat trick to open up his senior national-team scoring account, the 23-year-old is finally making his star turn in the next generation of American players.
"In the last stretch of games, Sacha has grown in the national team," acknowledged Bradley, who is entering his third year as U.S. coach. "He's a strong candidate to always be on the field now." Though not overly effusive, Bradley was clearly pleased at how his former club player had advanced. "It's nice to see Sacha get some goals," he said after the Sweden game. "He worked hard in this camp, took a little break in the middle, but came back strong."
That "break" was actually a trial with Scotland's famed club, Celtic, which gave Kljestan a once-over. Celtic is looking for a bargain, however, and Kljestan may have raised his price out of its reach with his latest performance.
"I had a good training experience over there," Kljestan said, maintaining at least a semblance of calm about the uncertainty of negotiations over his future. He said he returned from Scotland focused on his national-team obligations: "I think I did a pretty good job of not letting myself get distracted."
Even if talks break down with Celtic, Kljestan could benefit by staying with Chivas USA in the short term. With World Cup qualifying, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Confederations Cup all taking place this year, Bradley may prefer to rely on players who are game-fit -- many U.S. players abroad are fighting for regular playing time.
Goalkeeper Troy Perkins pointed out the dilemma for young national-team hopefuls: "Maybe the money is worse here in the league, but you're going to get good matches and you're going to get seen [by national-team coaches]," he said. (Perkins himself left MLS for Norway in '07 after two seasons as D.C. United's No. 1 keeper.)
Part of Kljestan's progress definitely is linked not only to the guidance he received during his rookie year from Bradley, but also from savvy veterans with Chivas USA -- especially Jesse Marsch, who once called Kljestan "an amazingly talented young player."
"We came into the league together," recalled 24-year-old defender Jonathan Bornstein, a teammate of Kljestan's both with Chivas USA and the national team. "A lot of the older guys have been showing us the ropes, how to stay mentally focused in games and how to manage everything."
Kljestan's willingness to learn and his diligence to improve have been integral elements of his progress. "Free-kicks are something that [Chivas USA coach] Preki worked with me a lot this past year," Kljestan said. Club practices would often end with Kljestan practicing set piece plays, even as other players left the field.
His opening goal against Sweden, a lovely curling ball that left the keeper helpless, showed the benefits of Kljestan's persistent work. "That's actually his first free-kick goal ever," Perkins pointed out.
The second goal came after Marvell Wynne earned the U.S. a penalty kick. Brian Ching who, as the veteran of the squad, could have insisted on the kick, instead turned the chance over to Kljestan.
"I gave him a little payback, because I stole his goal against Cuba," Ching said, referring to an earlier World Cup qualifying game where he redirected a Kljestan shot into the net. "That goal -- it was going in. I told him yesterday that if we had a PK, I'd let him take it."
Ching paid back any remaining debt with interest when he laid off a perfect pass to Kljestan's opportunistic run on the final goal. The midfielder showed the assured finishing touch of a striker, burying the pass to complete the hat trick.
With the U.S. facing archrival Mexico next month in World Cup qualifying, Ching noted that having a young talent like Kljestan riding high on confidence could give the Americans a boost. "To have a performance like that is huge," Ching said. "I hope it carries over. Maybe he'll get to play and play well in that game."
Chances now seem to abound for Kljestan, both on the national and professional level. With the possibility of a move to Celtic still looming, Bornstein was pragmatic about the potential loss of his club teammate.
"It would be a great step in his career and his development," Bornstein said. "I'm looking forward, if he stays, to playing with him again -- or watching him play if he goes."
Andrea Canales is chief editor of Goal.com USA.