There was plenty of hype surrounding Sacha Kljestan the moment the midfielder signed with the Red Bulls on Jan. 28.
Having made 46 appearances for the US Men’s National Team — and with plenty of UEFA Champions League experience with Belgian powerhouse Anderlecht — Kljestan was supposed to be the playmaker the Red Bulls were in desperate need of. The team’s attack would be centered around Kljestan and his ability to combine with Bradley Wright-Phillips to strike fear in the hearts of defenses throughout Major League Soccer.
Now almost halfway through the season, things haven’t turned out exactly the way the Red Bulls and Kljestan planned. His offensive production has not been up to expectation and his early red card in the June 20 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps put his team behind the eight ball in the midst of a losing streak. Questions were being asked about Kljestan and whether or not he was the right fit for this team.
Sunday’s match against NYCFC may have gone a long way in answering those questions. After serving a one-match suspension, Kljestan returned to the starting lineup and put on a man-of-the-match performance, providing two assists in the Red Bulls’ 3-1 win over their newest rivals at Yankee Stadium.
“After [last game’s] red card, [Kljestan] took on a lot of responsibility and he felt like he let the club down,” coach Jesse Marsch said to the media during his post-match press conference.
“I told him that these things happen and that he’s going to have plenty of time to make it up to everybody. I think [Sunday], he wanted to make sure in a derby match that he’s going to step on the field and make a big imprint and I think he did.”
With the Red Bulls down 1-0 going into the second half, Kljestan put the team on his back and displayed the type of playmaking ability the team signed him for. His superb cross led to Wright-Phillips’ 47th-minute equalizer and his 52nd-minute free kick helped set up Chris Duvall’s game-winning goal.
After NYCFC’s opening blitz in the first 15 minutes of the game, Kljestan said he was able to grow into the match and take advantage of the opportunities the home side was giving him.
“We started kind of slow,” he said after the match. “I think [NYCFC] made it a point to be really hard on me. They got tired and I kept getting stronger. Fortunately, my teammates found with the ball in very good spaces and I could pick up a couple of assists.”
It was the type of game the Red Bulls had been longingly searching for from Kljestan. Will he be able to do it again? The team is hoping that he can and build momentum off of Sunday’s match.
“Sacha’s just rounding into form and we need him,” Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said. “We need him to be our brain. We need him to make plays for us because that’s what we brought him in. He’s been steadily getting better every game and hopefully this is a game where his confidence just goes through the roof and that he can continue this form.”
A Look Ahead: vs. NY Cosmos (US Open Cup 5th Round)
The Red Bulls go from one New York derby to another, as they play host to the New York Cosmos Wednesday at Red Bull Arena. Live coverage on MSG+ begins at 7 PM.
The US Open Cup is the United States’ version of England’s famed FA Cup tournament. It’s the oldest competition in American soccer at 102-years-old. All three pro levels of American soccer and top amateur teams around the country are entered into the tournament, with a “one-and-done” format. Once you lose, you’re out of the Cup.
The Cosmos are not in Major League Soccer and are considered a “lower-league” side when it comes to the US Open Cup. It’s the first time the Cosmos will play at Red Bull Arena and, having already knocked off NYCFC in the previous round, the North American Soccer League side will be attempting to pull off a New York Derby double.
If you don’t know anything about the Cosmos, know this: They have in their disposal one of the top strikers of all time. Raul Gonzalez Blanco, better known as Raul, is one of the most decorated strikers in Spanish soccer history. A six-time La Liga winner with Real Madrid and three-time winner of the Champions League, Raul still poses a danger even at the age of 38.
Marsch has already stated that he will field his strongest team in Open Cup play and the Red Bulls will head into Wednesday’s contest not taking the Cosmos lightly.
“It’s going to big another big game Wednesday,” Kljestan said. “We know this is going to be a Cup Final for [the Cosmos] because they’re a lower-division team playing against a neighbor. “We also know that last year they knocked the Red Bulls out of the Open Cup, so we have to be prepared for a difficult game. Our mentality should shine through and we should win.”