Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan’s season — and the Lions’ season in general — hasn’t been what he expected.
Kljestan was part of a massive offseason roster rebuild. He was a marquee signing, a player Orlando City paid a premium for in the hopes he would help lead the Lions to their first MLS playoff berth.
Orlando City’s season will come to an end Sunday. Win or lose, the Lions (8-21-4, 28 points) will finish the season with the lowest points total in the club’s four-year history in MLS.
“Personally, I’d say it’s been the hardest, most difficult, most frustrating season of my career,” Kljestan said. “Thirteenth year now, I think, of my career and this is the first losing season I’ve had, so it’s been very difficult to deal with.
“I’d say on a personal level, not up to the expectations that I expect to be part of. I think my performances were up and down this season, definitely not consistent as they have been throughout the rest of my career. I think that can be said about everybody on the team, especially when you go through such a bad losing season like we did. I don’t think anybody can look in the mirror at the end of the season and say they had a good season.”
The frustrations lie everywhere, Kljestan said. He has six goals heading into Sunday’s season finale against the New York Red Bulls (21-7-5, 68 points), but only six assists after three consecutive double-digit assist seasons.
“I think, from top to bottom, everything we did this season was not good enough,” Kljestan said. “I think there are many things that need to change for us to be better and I don’t really want to delve into everything that was not good enough.”
And beating the Red Bulls on Saturday won’t do much to get rid of the negative feelings surrounding this season.
“It makes no difference to me,” Klljestan said. “If we win this weekend, I’m still going to leave with the absolute worst taste in my mouth over this season. No, it won’t make a difference to me.”
It might take more than just one preseason with new coach James O’Connor to fix things.
“I think there are big things that need to be established in this club, which I don’t think can happen over one preseason,” Kljestan said. “Coming from playing [with] some very good clubs before and seeing the way things are done, I think there are big changes that need to be made.
“And they’re not just individual things. They’re almost like from a mentality standpoint. From how we treat people every day to the way that we go about things as a club, it needs to be raised. In that way, it’s difficult. It takes time. Building an identity of the club, it takes time. These things are going to have to happen over longer periods of time, in my opinion.”
In three seasons with the Red Bulls, Kljestan racked up 51 assists to go with 16 goals. He wore the captain’s armband last season for the club. The Red Bulls traded Kljestan and $150,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to Orlando before the start of the season in exchange for Carlos Rivas and Tommy Redding.
This Sunday, Orlando City has the chance to play spoiler. With a win, the Red Bulls would miss out on the Supporters’ Shield. New York is one point behind Atlanta United, so United would need to lose to or draw with Toronto FC for the Red Bulls to claim the Shield.
“I’d just like to make clear: I’m not out to spoil the New York Red Bulls’ Supporters’ Shield,” Kljestan said. “I’m out to play a game of soccer and any time I play anything pretty much, I’m really competitive and I want to win. I would be doing the sport that I love a big disservice if I went out there and didn’t give anything but my best.
“Unfortunately, I think, for me, it’s not going to be a very fun afternoon for me. If I go there and I win, the Red Bulls don’t win the Supporters’ Shield and a lot of my friends are really sad. If I go there and watch them win, it’ll probably be a little bit of a bummer for me.
“So yeah, probably a no-win situation for me, although I am looking forward to going back there because it’s a place that I’ve had a lot of good memories and my family will be up there for the game and a lot of old friends and people from the neighborhood are coming to the game to support me. They all became Red Bull fans so now I think they’re going to be torn of who to cheer for this weekend.”