Sacha Kljestan certainly has some familiarity with NYCFC.
While competing for the New York Red Bulls, Kljestan faced off against NYCFC 10 times – nine regular season matches, once in the U.S. Open Cup – in the Hudson River Derby, compiling a 6-3-1 record against the Pigeons. During the nine games, Kljestan picked up 10 assists and one goal.
He’s even played some of his best matches at Yankee Stadium. While with the Red Bulls, he had four multi-assist games against NYCFC. Three of those games came on Yankee Stadium’s notoriously narrow pitch.
Now Kljestan is with Orlando City. The reigning MLS assist king has yet to play a match for the Lions due to a two-game suspension stemming from an incident last season against Toronto FC, but he’s set to make his debut this week in Yankee Stadium.
It’ll be a tough test. NYCFC (2-0-0, 6 points) is off to a hot start thanks, in part, to the talents of star forward David Villa (one goal, one assist in two matches). Orlando City (0-1-1, 1 point) is trying to find its way early in the season as new players – including Kljestan – make their debuts.
At least Kljestan is bringing that familiarity with him to Yankee Stadium. The Lions take on NYCFC at 3:55 p.m. in a match broadcast nationally on Univision.
“It’s going to be a very big test for me for my first game,” Kljestan said.
“It’s a difficult environment. It’s not easy to play. I think when you play on a big field and the grass is always nice, it’s always a little bit easier to play. So you’ve got to tune your mentality a little bit to know that it’s probably going lot be a lot more 50/50 balls and a bit more of a battle than usual because you just have less space to operate in.”
Head coach Jason Kreis said Kljestan’s debut means Orlando City finally gets a true No. 10 on the pitch. Richie Laryea was in the 10 spot for the Lions’ 2-1 loss to Minnesota United. Yoshimar Yotún filled that role in the season opener against D.C. United.
It’s a role Orlando City needs filled. The Lions dominated possession against the Loons, but weren’t sharp enough in the final third to convert chances.
“For the last two weeks we’ve been playing players out of position to fill that spot and I feel like we’ve lacked just a little bit of quality,” Kreis said after the loss to Minnesota United. “Nothing to do with the effort, I think the guys’ effort has been fantastic. Tonight, for me, we just lacked a little bit of quality in the final third.”
Kreis said he’s excited to add Kljestan’s leadership to the starting XI. Kljestan’s playmaking ability (37 assists over the last two seasons) is a welcome bonus.
“What he brings just from a character point of view out there – been there, done that,” Kreis said. “From that point of view, he will be a massive addition for us. So we’re all looking forward to it, no doubt.”
Coaches, players and fans have awaited Kljestan’s debut since it was announced at the start of January he was being traded to Orlando City for Carlos Rivas and Tommy Redding.
Midfielder Will Johnson said the Lions expect to be better with Kljestan on the pitch, but simply getting a player back doesn’t automatically make Orlando City the team to beat.
“The name speaks for itself in what he brings,” Johnson said. “He can’t do it all by himself though.”
Still, Kljestan knows there are expectations that come with his debut.
“I think the pressure I put on myself to perform week-in and week-out is enough,” Kljestan said. “I think I was brought in here to do a job and I know I’m an important player on the team and they gave up a lot to bring me here and I know I’ll be a key piece for this club for the next couple of years.
“None of that weighs on me as much as the pressure I put on myself to help my team win and help my team play well every game.”
Kljestan said he sees Orlando City as a fresh start.
“I’ve done this a few times in my career, so I’m used to it,” he said. “I talked in the offseason about how this was a difficult move for me in my family, but we’re fully settled in now. We’ve got our house, the kids are in the pool every day, they’ve got smiles on their faces… that’s the most important thing in life.
“When I get home every day and my family is happy, it makes me a happy man as well. We’re very happy here.”