HARRISON, N.J. — For Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan, Saturday wasn’t about earning a win against the New York Red Bulls.
It was about earning the Lions’ first victory of the 2019 season.
Kljestan, who played for the New York Red Bulls from 2015 until 2017, was booed by fans at Red Bull Arena, even more so after he scored a goal that proved to be the match-winner in the 73rd minute of Orlando City’s 1-0 victory over the Red Bulls. It was Orlando City’s first road victory in league play since April 29, 2018.
“The biggest thing for me was that we won,” Kljestan said. “I mean, we desperately need a win and a road win to kind of boost the confidence of our group. So, that was huge. Then, obviously, it feels really good when you get a game-winning goal, so it feels good.”
He called the goal “a little bittersweet” after the match.
“I love this place and I love those guys and [Red Bulls head coach] Chris Armas and the whole group is a great group of guys,” he said. “I miss these guys. I love them. So, it’s a little bittersweet, but, I mean, it still feels really good.”
It was an all-around strong performance from Kljestan. He had the highest passing accuracy (72.9 percent) of any Orlando City player on the pitch for the entire match, seven recoveries, three clearances and three tackles.
Regarding the boos, Kljestan said, “Fair enough.”
“I was excited to play. It’s an awesome stadium and playing in this Arena is always, like, brings out the best in people. There’s always been, like, huge performances here, especially from road teams that have come here and done well, so, I don’t know, this is a special place and I really enjoy playing on the field.”
Kljestan hugged Armas after the match.
“He just said ‘congratulations,’” Kljetsan said. “Chris is one of the best guys I’ve ever met in soccer, if not the best, most genuine person I know. So any time I get to see him, it just brings a smile on my face. I think he feels the same about me. The mutual respect is at the highest level between Chris and I and it was just nice to share a moment after the game.”
Kljestan earned an MLS Team of the Week nod for his performance. He was one of four Orlando City players to be named to the Team of the Week, including right wingback Ruan, goalkeeper Brian Rowe and midfielder Carlos Ascues, who was named to the bench.
“He did a fantastic job defensively,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said of Kljestan. “I’m really pleased with Sacha. I mean, he’s obviously got a lot of history here. I know he’s got huge respect for everybody in the Red Bull organization. So, for him, I think, to have that level of performance, not just a goal, I’m very proud of all the players, but equally, for Sacha to do that [Saturday] against his old team was fantastic.”
O’Connor said he didn’t need to talk to Kljestan, about keeping a level head while facing his former team. Saturday’s match was Kljestan’s third game against the New York Red Bulls since he was traded before the start of the 2018 season. So far, Kljestan is 2-1-0 against his former team with a goal and an assist.
“I trust Sacha,” O’Connor said. “He’s been around the block. He’s got good understanding. He’s very intelligent. He understands the game. You can see. I think, for us, for him to play the way he did, just so physically, to make very difficult for them to attack, and then to finish so coolly, with great composure, is testament to his quality.”
Kljestan, who last week said Orlando City was at its best using three centerbacks, said Orlando City’s mentality is what gave it the edge against the Red Bulls on Saturday.
Orlando City (1-1-2, 5 points) returns home to face D.C. United (2-0-1, 7 points) on Sunday.
“I think that part was obvious, that we were very good tactically,” Kljestan said. “You know, the Red Bulls throw a lot of numbers forward and they’ve got some super-talented attacking players, so we knew we had to be ready for everything. You know, with seven minutes of added time, even be ready for 97 minutes of total football to be ready to play and defend and play hard.
“Tactically, we were good, but mentality was probably what put us over the top.”