THE REALIZATION that a young player is reaching his potential can strike suddenly. In a span of four weeks earlier this year, 23-year-old Sacha Kljestan scored three goals for the U.S. in a friendly against Sweden, played 86 mostly error-free minutes in a 2--0 World Cup victory over archrival Mexico and trained with Scottish giant Celtic FC, which afterward offered a reported $2.9 million to bring Kljestan (pronounced KLES-tion) to Glasgow from his MLS club, L.A.'s Chivas USA.
Among MLS observers Kljestan's maturation had been duly noted—he was named to the league's Best XI in 2008—but just how good he can be is only now becoming apparent. He entered the league in '06 more comfortable on the ball than most players, and his vision and touch made him capable of freeing teammates with the dazzling pass. But he tried for the game-changing assist too often, leading to too many turnovers. He has learned to better pick his spots and is also becoming more committed on defense. "The offensive side of the ball comes easy to him," Chivas coach Preki says. "We have to make him remember he's got defensive responsibilities."
The 6'1" Kljestan is likely to start on the left flank in Saturday's opener against Colorado, but his role this season will depend on which Goats can stay healthy. The club finished first in the Western Conference in 2007 and second in '08 but has never won a playoff series, due in part to injuries. Already, veteran striker Ante Razov and defenders Bobby Burling and Lawson Vaughn are out until late April, and goalkeeper Dan Kennedy will miss a month. "We have the capability of doing something special, but we've talked about that for two or three years now," says Razov. "Some of us are running out of time."
That group does not include Kljestan, who Razov says "is on his way to becoming a man." He is the best young American in MLS, and in a busy year for the national team—Gold Cup, Confederations Cup, World Cup qualifying—he'll have plenty of chances to show U.S. coach Bob Bradley, the former Chivas coach who drafted Kljestan out of Seton Hall in '06, that he can be the box-to-box central midfielder Bradley is looking for.
Kljestan lives near his hometown of Huntington Beach, and his relaxed California persona helps him strike that tricky balance between self-assurance and cockiness. "At the Olympics [last August], in the game against Holland, we looked across the field, and there were guys who played for Valencia, Ajax, PSV [Eindhoven], Liverpool," says Kljestan, who scored the first U.S goal in a 2--2 draw. "Some of us were in MLS and some played for smaller clubs in Europe, but then we handled them for, like, 70 minutes. I drew a lot of confidence from that."
Veteran Chivas midfielder Jesse Marsch says Kljestan's competitive juices "started to bubble" after Beijing, and they haven't stopped. Kljestan wants to move to a European club this summer, even though it would mean leaving Chivas before the season ends.
"I look at a player like [Barcelona's Lionel] Messi, and all the great things he has done, winning the Champions League, an Olympic gold medal, an under-20 World Cup," says Kljestan, "and he's two years younger than me." Adds Marsch, "Consider where he could be as a player in a year if he keeps working and improving. You can understand why he'd have some major aspirations."