Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
It may not be showing in the win column, but Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan is playing some of the best soccer of his career since he moved abroad.
The U.S. Men’s National Team regular has scored seven goals in 13 Belgian league matches, including three in his last three games. Now, with his side mired in a UEFA Champions League dogfight at the bottom of Group 4, Kljestan must focus on three fronts—the league, European competition, and USMNT friendly matches next week—to keep him in line for a roster spot in Brazil.
“I think every little thing you do is important,” Kljestan told U.S. Soccer in an interview. “Playing in Champions league is important, being a leader on your team is important, scoring goals and helping your team win games is important also. I’m just trying to do everything in my power to put myself in a good position to be one of the guys that Jurgen [Klinsmann] counts on when it comes to Brazil.”
Kljestan’s club Anderlecht currently sits in fifth-place in the Belgian Pro League, five points behind leaders Standard Liege with 28 points from a 9-1-4 record. The 28-year-old admits that after winning the league title last season, the club sold off some of their older players, including Argentine midfielder Lucas Biglia, forward Tom de Sutter, and forward Dieumerci Mbokani, leading to some difficult results.
In their first three Champions League games this season, Anderlecht has been on the wrong side of losses, including an embarrassing 5-0 defeat at home to Paris Saint-Germain two weeks ago. Even with the tough losses both in Europe and in the domestic league, it hasn’t stopped Kljestan from turning into the team’s leading scorer in the league so far.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Kljestan on his goal-scoring form. “Four of the seven goals have come off set pieces. I’ve been putting myself in good positions to score on set pieces. The others have come from the run of play. I’ve just been putting myself in a good spot and really taking my chances.
“It’s not like I’ve had a ton of opportunities to score this season. I’ve really had maybe 10 and scored on seven of them. It’s just one of those things that happen in soccer. Sometimes when you get in the zone and you get a little bit of luck here and there, and you have some experience to go along with it, things just kind of fall into place. Right now, I have the hot hand and I hope it continues.”
One adjustment that Kljestan has had to make mentally is accepting that when everyone is fit, he’s not in USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s starting lineup. For most of 2013, the California native has usually been the third central midfielder behind Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley.
However, Kljestan admitted that when the U.S. played Jamaica last month in Kansas City, he had a conversation with Klinsmann about his place in the team and Kljestan left the meeting feeling more secure about his responsibilities and what the manager wants from him.
“I had a good talk with Jurgen when we were in Kansas City,” said Kljestan. “I feel positive about my performances lately and I hope to continue getting more chances before the World Cup to prove that I’m valuable to the team.
“I think recently in the games I have played I’ve done well. When I came on against Bosnia and helped the team to a victory in the end, and the same against Jamaica when I came on. So, maybe my impact is in that substitute role that can help the team in the middle of the field get the game going and things like that. ”
The former Seton Hall Pirate should have another chance to impress with the USMNT squad this month with friendly matches against Scotland on Nov. 15 and Austria on Nov. 19. And if he can translate his rich goal-scoring form from Anderlecht to the national team, it would be further proof that he deserves a spot on the 2014 World Cup roster.
“Every game is an opportunity, every international date is a chance to prove to Jurgen, the staff and the team that you belong and you can make a difference,” Kljestan said. “So, hopefully I’m there with the guys. Obviously playing against two very good European teams in Europe is always a challenge and hopefully we get a good result.”