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Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan working to instill winning mentality

Orlando City SC midfielder Sacha Kljestan (16) passes the ball during the first half against the Philadelphia Union at Orlando City Stadium. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan isn’t used to missing games due to injury.

Kljestan has been back in the starting XI for the Lions’ last two matches, but he didn’t want to miss the two games before that. He was out due to a right ankle injury he suffered in the first half of Orlando City’s 3-3 draw with the New England Revolution on Aug. 4.

He tried to play through the injury – again, he didn’t want to be away from the team – but eventually was subbed off.

Kljestan said he was determined to get back as quickly as possible. He returned for Orlando City’s game against the Philadelphia Union and played 76 minutes after missing the team’s matches against D.C. United and Atlanta United. He played a full 90 minutes in Orlando City’s 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City during the weekend.

“It was difficult for me,” Kljestan told Pro Soccer USA. “I’ve only missed five games in my career due to injury. These two were difficult because it just came at a weird time. Then we had an off week and then I was rushed back into playing again. Not by the coaching staff or anybody, but by the feeling that I needed to be back on the field.”

Kljestan said he’s still not 100 percent, but he’s doing what he can to help Orlando City. The Lions (7-17-3, 24 points) take on the Chicago Fire (6-15-6, 24 points) on the road on Sunday.

“Only after having a couple of training sessions, playing the game against Philly, obviously I was not good enough,” Kljestan said. “I still don’t feel like I’m 100 percent yet. I’d say in the past two games, I have not been anywhere close to my level and that’s been very frustrating because I’m not 100 percent fit yet. It’s been a difficult period.

“Just a frustrating part of a frustrating season.”

Kljestan said one of the most frustrating aspects of the season has been trying to instill a winning mentality in a franchise that hasn’t ever made the playoffs. He said he appreciates what new coach James O’Connor has done, mentality-wise, for Orlando City.

“That’s probably been the most difficult part, trying to change the culture into a winning mentality here,” Kljestan said.

“That’s been the hardest and most frustrating thing for me. For me, I can only speak for myself, [I] come to work every day with a positive attitude, with an attitude that no matter who long I’ve been playing the game, that I can always get better every day in training. I hope that part of infectious to the rest of the guys on the team.

“Unfortunately, this season, it hasn’t gone that way and that’s been a very frustrating part for me. Trying to build a winning mentality is not easy and it’s taken a lot longer than I had hoped but, you know, we’ve got to keep going.”

Kljestan knows what it takes to win in MLS. He was consistently in the MLS playoffs while with the New York Red Bulls.

“The part about enjoying the craft of making yourself better every day,” Kljestan said. “The part of competing in training. That every game we play in training is for the object of winning. Guys, each individual, wanting to get better every day. Whether that’s staying long to work on your weaknesses or staying longer to work on the things you’re already good at to make them even better.

“Then finding ways to win in games, which is … I guess it takes a little bit of experience, but it also takes caring. Do we have enough guys that care more about winning than losing? More than about just being a professional soccer player? Are you just happy to be here or are you really wanting to make a difference by winning games and pushing this club forward?

“That part of the mentality has to change if we’re going to win anything.”

Kljestan said he thinks Orlando City needs more players capable of instilling a winning mentality. 

“I think we need more guys that are willing to lay everything down and give everything they have to be a winning player,” Kljestan said. 

There are seven regular season matches left for Orlando City. Kljestan said the team, which isn’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, is gearing up for a final push. What Orlando City needs in order to make that push is still a mystery.

The Lions have given up a league-high 62 goals this season. There hasn’t been a consistent Achilles heel for the team, either.

“I guess, if I had the answer, we wouldn’t be talking about this very thing right now,” Kljestan said. “It’s been tough because we’ve lost games in all types of ways this season. From getting beat by good teams, to beating ourselves, to making mind-boggling plays that lose us games… every which way, we have lost games this season.

“I don’t know what it is, but we just have to find a way to win. We’ll see.”

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