LOS ANGELES – Nothing about the last three weeks has been easy for Sacha Kljestan.
“Definitely the hardest offseason of my life,” he said. “Hard for me and my family.”
It started with Kljestan, captain of the New York Red Bulls, finding out he would be traded.
“Fortunately, [coach] Jesse Marsch was willing to work with me not blindside me with the trade,” Kljestan said.
Then, it was time to find a new home.
“The common thing that happened was my agent saying, ‘[Orlando City coach] Jason Kreis reached out again. Jason Kreis called again. He’s very interested,’” Kljestan said. “He saw me as an important piece and he really wanted me to be there.”
So now he’s coming into a team where he’ll be asked to lead immediately, somewhat filling the shoes of retired legend Kaká. He’s expected to help usher in a new mentality for an all-new roster Orlando hopes translates to a new outcome.
Kljestan led the league in assists the last two seasons and totaled 51 in three years with New York, where he most frequently set up English striker Bradley Wright-Phillips. Kljestan’s play in the Red Bulls’ midfield was exciting and gritty, a fierce competitor who home fans loved and the opposition loved to hate.
For those reasons, when Orlando City announced the trade, which sent homegrown centerback Tommy Redding and speedy Colombian forward Carlos Rivas to New Jersey, some of the club’s most vocal fans on Twitter lamented the move despite his accolades.
“Yea, Orlando City Twitter is real,” Kljestan said. “Look, I always enjoyed playing in Orlando because I knew it would be tough, I knew it would be hostile and that after the game they would talk shit on Twitter.
“And, ya know, controversy happened in Orlando my first time down there. I scored a good goal that game. I always set up goals against Orlando. So, I understood the fans didn’t like me that much. But I’ll do my best to win them over. … I’ve said this all along: I hated playing down there. I enjoyed playing down there because of who they are and how hostile they are, but you hate it – it’s going up against a 12th man.”
Kljestan’s passion on the pitch can boil over at times. He’s made mistakes – like getting into an altercation with U.S. men’s national teammate Jozy Altidore during halftime of an Eastern Conference semifinal in November. Kljestan received a two-game suspension for the incident so will not make his debut with the Lions until a March 17 road trip to NYCFC.
But it’s also what made Kljestan great.
“It is what it is,” he said, adding that at 32 years old he feels at the top of his game. “Sometimes I let my passion get the best of me on the field. I care so much about what I do, and in the end I’m really pissed because I miss two home games to start off the season. I feel like I’m already letting my teammates down at the beginning of the year. But the end of the season is more important than the beginning, and how we build this thing throughout the year and the process of trying to reach the playoffs. So, I’m 32, but I still make mistakes and I’m still learning from them.”
Kljestan says he’s not a talker, but he has no problem speaking up when he feels frustrated by social or political injustices.
During MLS media day in Los Angeles last week he did not hesitate to call out MLS for allowing players to be traded without consent, bringing up the shocking trade of former Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty to Chicago ahead of the 2017 season and Larent Ciman’s recent move from Montreal to Los Angeles FC. Kljestan said he may get more involved with the MLS Players Union to institute better protections for players in this regard.
And while many athletes often err on the side of caution and refrain from commenting on political movements or controversial topics, not Kljestan.
“I don’t typically tweet about politics to try to get a rise out of anybody or to start a movement or anything like that,” Kljestan said. “Usually, it comes out of a place of frustration at this point. I understand that I do have a platform and people do listen. And soccer is a sport where we all come from different walks of life. Most people come to America for the land of opportunity, my father certainly did, and I just don’t like the close-mindedness of the way the White House is run right now. Most of my tweets that are political just come out of a place of frustration. “
His father, an immigrant from Yugoslavia, crossed the Canada-U.S. border in the trunk of a car.
Kljestan’s biggest political concern is getting younger generations to vote, something he did not do when he first became eligible and now regrets.
Face to face, though, Kljestan is less fiery passion and more confident compassion. He has a soft smile behind that boorish mustache and he speaks with thoughtful and easy self-awareness.
His eyes will soften when he talks about his family – wife, Jamie; a son who will be a year old in February; and a daughter who turns 4 in April – and how they felt settled in New Jersey and didn’t want to leave. But they’re moving quickly to feel at home in their new city, too. They found a house after just one day looking and will close on it in February. The family also owns a home in California, where his wife will be for the next week before heading back to New Jersey to pack up their belongings and make the permanent move to Florida.
“She’s a stay-at-home mom; the hardest job for sure,” Kljestan said. “I would not want to give up my job to switch with her. I feel like I’m the lucky one and she puts in a lot more hard work than I do.”
When it comes to soccer, some of Kljestan’s answers do echo that of former Lion leader Kaká. Things like, “I love training,” and “I like to lead with my actions.”
“I really love going to work every day and putting in extra work and working with the young guys, trying to improve myself day after day,” Kljestan said. “I don’t think I’ve missed training. I’ve missed five games in my career – knock on wood – because of injury. I feel like I’ve improved every year, so by the time I’m 40, I’ll probably be the best player in MLS.”
“But, yeah, the talking. I don’t like to talk that much – it’s just the way I am. I hope the young guys will look up to me and try to compete like I do and try to win like I do.”
Kljestan thinks the Lions still needs to add depth but made positive progress with the pieces acquired so far.
“It’s obvious it was needed. I think the midfield and forward will be strong,” he said. “My job is to go in and build relationships with the guys around me. It’s about coming in and really competing, getting everyone on the same page.”
Those Kljestan is particularly excited to play with include midfielders Yoshimar Yotún, Josué Colmán and Cristian Higuita. He also already knows forward Dom Dwyer from training together during offseasons in Los Angeles.
“Excited to link up with him,” Kljestan said with a smirk. “I have a pretty good record of setting up English strikers.”
Orlando City keeper Joe Bendik trains on the first day of training for the team on January 22, 2018. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel)