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Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan says Lions are pushing in the right direction

Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan participates in a scrimmage against the Philadelphia Union at Omni ChampionsGate. (Jordan Culver-Pro Soccer USA)

SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan is optimistic about the direction of the Lions. 

Kljestan, who is entering his 10th MLS season, said he entered this preseason with a fresh mentality regarding the team’s new players and culture after a frustrating 2018 campaign. Kljestan started Tuesday’s preseason scrimmage against the Philadelphia Union, which ended in a 4-1 loss. 

“I think James has done a very good job of bringing in a good group of guys with a good mentality and then it’s on the players for everybody to buy in,” Kljestan said. “We’re about three and a half weeks in now and the level of commitment, the level of buy-in, the togetherness of the group inside and outside of the locker room is at a very good level, so it’s been a fun preseason so far.

“It’s been very hard, but it’s been fun and I think we’re pushing in the right direction. I think everybody right now is optimistic, including myself.”

Toward the end of last season, Kljestan, who was Orlando City’s second-highest paid player in 2018, was critical of the mentality of certain players and of the organization as a whole

He also said his own performances weren’t up to his standards. Kljestan finished last season with six goals and six assists. His assist numbers were a far-cry from the three consecutive double-digit assist seasons he posted while with the New York Red Bulls. 

He said he looks to the NBA for inspiration. 

“Everything,” he said when asked about what he looked to improve on in the offseason. “There’s always parts of your game that can get better. That includes leadership. 

“I watch the NBA a lot and I watch a lot of these guys who sign max contracts and then you see them get better and they get better and they get better. You know, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry — guys who have already reached the top and you see in the offseason that they work on something that they’re not so good at and that part’s inspiring. 

“When I was home this offseason, I mean fitness is always such a big part, having such a long offseason. This was the longest offseason I’ve had so making sure that I came in really fit was very important for me. Making sure that I got stronger, physically. And then we played pickup games in the offseason with a bunch of the Southern California pros, just trying to stay sharp in front of the goal, because I think that part is important as well.”

Kljestan said there’s a willingness to learn among the team’s new players. As of Wednesday, 15 players from last season’s roster have been jettisoned. Including trialists still with the team, Orlando City has 12 new players and coach James O’Connor has said the club is still looking to add more pieces. 

The Lions continue their preseason training with the Orlando City Invitational this weekend at Orlando City Stadium. The Lions take on NYCFC on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The reserves will play a closed-door scrimmage at UCF earlier in the day. 

“I think the willingness to learn, the willingness to try something new with, maybe, a new formation, and a willingness to be uncomfortable and I think a vulnerability of everybody,” Kljestan said about what’s impressed him most about the new-look Lions.

“We’ve been practicing some really good things within the team, within the locker room, just between the guys that I think are going to pay dividends as the season goes on. The togetherness of the group and the willingness to learn and be open and share with each other and try to get better as a group, that has been really, really good.” 

Kljestan said he doesn’t want to forget about last season, but he wants to push past it. He added he’s excited for the 2019 season and that, compared to last season at the same time, the team is in a better place. 

“I think so,” he said. “Without expanding on it too much, I think we’re in a very good spot team-camaraderie-wise right now.”

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