In many ways, Sacha Kljestan is an extension of Jesse Marsch on the field — the New York Red Bulls midfielder knows and understands what his coach expects from his team. It’s a relationship that goes back a decade when Kljestan was a rookie in MLS and Marsch was a veteran of the league.
Back then, Kljestan was a first-round pick of Chivas USA in 2006, his arrival at the club coinciding with the team’s best period in franchise history. It was there under head coach Bob Bradley that Kljestan would meet the team’s captain, Marsch.
Entering what would be his 11th season in the league, Marsch had won titles already with D.C. United and the Chicago Fire, a player as respected for his heart and courage as he was for his tireless work rate and tactical acumen.
Ask Kljestan about that first training session as an MLS player and he vividly remembers Marsch, who was 32-years-old at the time but still led the team in fitness. And Kljestan also remembers the first small-sided game with Marsch in which he recalls the fiery midfielder going all-out like he was the rookie.
It left an impression on Kljestan.
Turns out the rookie impressed the team’s captain, the man who is now his head coach.
“I think the trust level between him and I is at a very, very high level. He knows me very well, he knows the things I care about, what I try to instill. When you’re young and around good leaders, you learn from them and it becomes a part of who you are,” Marsch said.
“I think I’ve been able to mentor Sacha in a good way over the years and it’s gotten to the point where he’s able to add certain things and what he believes in and who he is. Overall, I think our trust level and communication level means that he is an extension of me on the field.”
Marsch remembers Kljestan as “Gifted on the ball, easy in moving around.”
They would spend four seasons together, Marsch retiring after the 2009 season and Kljestan then moving on to Anderlecht in Belgium the following year. But Marsch then became an assistant with the national team under Bradley and the two would be linked together again as Kljestan was somewhat of a regular with the United States.
In many ways with the Red Bulls, Kljestan is Marsch-like. He’s the voice of the team, an organizer and a thinker on the field. Midfielder Felipe groups Kljestan with captain Dax McCarty and goalkeeper Luis Robles as one of the most influential players on the team.
It is Kljestan who in many ways is the one leading the pressing or the first one tracking back, knowing what is needed in Marsch’s system. An understanding he has based on knowing Marsch first as a player, then as an assistant coach with the national team and now as his head coach with the Red Bulls.
An understanding that started a decade earlier in the first practice of Kljestan’s career as a soccer player.
“We killed the other team. It was partly because of the soccer and partly…right away, it was like we were playing for years,” Marsch said.
“When you’re playing with good players, that’s what it is like. You have a sixth sense of how the ball moves, how to be easy play with for the next guy. Sacha and I had that early, early on.”