This is Part 2 - Here is Part 1.
He is Sacha’s father. He was his first coach. He taught his boys to play soccer a certain way. He battled to become an American citizen, lost his mother in war, and damned if he isn’t going to have his say. With carpenter hands, a bartender’s mouth, and the disposition of an all-knowing CEO, Slavko sits back and explains matter of fact that his son’s technical skills outweigh what are still conceived as physical deficiencies. Slavko has coaching licenses and agent licenses, and he’s been through too much to let this dream die, the dream he once held out for himself.
Just about every coach didn’t know what he was doing. You’ll excuse a father for making such rash statements. But follow the rest of Sacha’s career—a study on American soccer hegemony and its coaching styles, of the importance of finding a coach that understands a player’s game and how best to use it—and it becomes harder to argue with Slavko. But by all means, have fun trying.
Sacha is no Lionel Messi, but would Messi be the player we see today without nearly 10 years in the world’s finest club, playing along side some of the world’s finest players? What would he look like after youth coaches cast him aside saying he was too small? After high school ball? After college? after a few years on Chivas USA? What if Barcelona hadn’t whisked Messi and his family away from Argentina? What if Barcelona had seen Sacha at the age of 6 destroying his opponents and placed him alongside the likes of Fabregas and Iniesta?
MLS coaches describe Sacha as a difficult player to play against, using phrases like, “he has a great work rate;” “he pops up in different parts of the field;” “he makes good decisions;” and “he is really dynamic.” Over the course of his career he’s played well when given freedom and stood his ground in more structured roles. So what’s the problem? That is what Slavko would like to know.
Every coach has their perfect type of player that fits their system, and it either helps a player flourish or makes it more difficult, but if Sacha’s story isn’t a condemnation of the greater American system of youth soccer development, his career in the very least supports a national reputation for choosing the best athletes over the best soccer players and for not having the larger support structure on the field to allow some of the most technically gifted players to thrive.
As Sacha got older, when soccer got more serious, that coaching dichotomy, his near inability to find and stay with a coach on an elite team that understood what he could do on the field, almost forced him from playing the sport at all.
At 16, Sacha got another chance at ODP with the U-17s. He went for the tryout, just one training session in the form of a scrimmage. “Steve Sampson was the coach,” Sacha says. “I played like 15 minutes, and he was like, ‘Yeah, you’re cut,’ or whatever, and I was like, I’m done with soccer. I was so bummed. I really wanted to quit.”
“He did. He cried,” Slavko says. “I had to talk him out of it. One idiot is not going to tell you what to do, son.”
“Um, ok,” Sacha says giving his dad a forced smile. “So then a few weeks later is when they go to regional camp up in Idaho usually. Lucky for me, Steve Sampson needed some sort of emergency surgery, so he didn’t go. And one of their players got sick. So the assistant coach, who I guess liked me, called me, and said I could come on the trip. So I went, started every game, led the team in scoring, and made the regional team again. So, I was like, Steve Sampson’s a joke, alright.”
But there was still no call from the youth national team. Midway through his senior year, Sacha hadn’t even been recruited by a college. Local destinations like Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton, where Gordon was red-shirting after a knee injury, expressed interest in Sacha but didn’t offer anything specific, not even a campus visit. No one denied his foot skills, but except for the rare exception, they couldn’t see past Sacha’s feeble shadow.
“January came around,” Sacha says, “And there was this regional tournament down in San Diego for the 1984s, and I was an ‘85. One of the ‘84 teams was delayed or something, so they needed a team to go down there and play the East Regional Team. I went down there for this one game with a team of state players and Manny was actually the coach of the Region 1 East team.”
Manny Schellscheidt moonlighted with the eastern regional team, but his day job was head coach at Seton Hall. After the game he went up to Sacha’s coach Billy McNicol, a friend of Manny’s from NASL and indoor league days. “There are two boys in there that are very good,” Schellscheidt tells me later over the phone, remembering the post-game discussion with McNicol. “Are they taken care of in terms of going to college? Billy said, ‘The one, I know where he is going, but the other one nobody’s been interested.’ That was Sacha.”
Schellscheidt couldn’t believe it. “He had a great game. I liked the way he played. I was surprised that he was not spoken for. He was slight, and people would say, ‘Ugh, I’m not so sure, we’ll see,’ but you could see the soccer right away. He had this great flow. The ball does not slow him down. He’s got a brilliant mind for the game, and that’s what I saw in the making. I went to talk to him immediately after the game.”
“He asked me if I had thought about Seton Hall for college,” Sacha says. “I was like, no not really. He asked if I would be interested in coming to New Jersey. I said no not really. I told him the first time I talked to him that I don’t think I’ll leave California. He said OK.”
Three weeks later Schellscheidt called Sacha and invited him on a recruiting visit to Seton Hall in South Orange, New Jersey, not far from New York City. “I was like, alright, I guess I’ll take a visit,” Sacha says. “We’ll see. It’s free, you know? I thought I was going to Cal State Fullerton because Gordon was a freshman there. But they still had not offered me a scholarship or anything.”
It was snowy, cold, February, in New Jersey. Sacha never learned to surf, but aside from that small detail, he falls within the California surfer demographic. South Orange, New Jersey, in the dead of winter—this may not go so well.
“It sucked,” Sacha says.
San Jose Earthquake’s defender Jason Hernandez was finishing up his sophomore year after being named the Seton Hall team captain when Sacha arrived for his two-day visit. Freshman players usually hosted recruits, but Schellscheidt was emphatic that Jason show Sacha around. The coach wanted the boy and thought a good visit would go a long way in stealing the Californian away to Jersey. “I wasn’t the happiest of campers when coach told me I had to take him around,” Hernandez tells me over the phone. “But our coach was high on Sacha. I think if it was any other guy, they would have just put him with a random freshman.”
Hernandez wasn’t impressed. He saw a scrawny California kid, who was thin, kind of awkward. He thought to himself, “What is coach thinking? No chance this kid is going to come here and do well.” Halfway through the first day Hernandez pawned Sacha off on some freshmen.
Next Hernandez saw of Sacha was at the team’s annual awards banquet on the final night of the recruit’s visit. Sacha and Slavko were sitting with the parents and family members of the team when Coach Schellscheidt introduced Sacha and invited him up to the podium, asking what the teenager’s first impressions of the program were. “I’m really thankful to be here,” Sacha said, not even a rookie but a recruit. “To see you guys and get to visit. Hopefully I get to come next year and we can run the Big East.”
“A lot of guys were like ‘What is he talking about,’ Hernandez remembers. “But some of guys were like, ‘OK, this kid, maybe there is something to him.’ Those few words from him, this little guy up at the podium, not even a member of the team—it spoke volumes.”
“It sucked,” Sacha says. “But everybody had the best things to say about Manny. Everyone was like, ‘If you go to Seton Hall you’re going to get better.’ And it’s a good private school. They gave me a 70 percent scholarship, which is pretty good. Manny said, ‘I can’t guarantee you’ll start, but you’ll probably play from the way that you play.’ It was finally a coach that understood the way I play and wanted to do the same ideas as me. So I was so stoked about it. When I left New Jersey, I knew I was going to go there.”
He accepted an official visit to Fullerton, which was making a last-stab effort now that there was interest back East, but Seton Hall was the winner. Fullerton tried to sell him beaches and girls; Jersey sold soccer. And if there were doubts about life in New Jersey, those quickly faded. Jason Hernandez quickly became a close friend on a tight-knit team, while “Uncle John” and his wife (technically Slavko’s cousin not sister) took care of family matters. “John D’agastini. Classic Italian guy,” Sacha says. “He’s the coolest dude ever, grew up in South Orange, and it was his lifelong dream to go to Seton Hall, but he didn’t get in. Before the dorms were ready my freshman year, I stayed with them, and he let me drive his Audi to practice everyday. He brought food to the dorms. Me and my friends would go down to their house and grill and watch Yankee games. He came to all my games and was the loudest fan. He’s the best.”
“The biggest turnaround for Sacha,” Slavko says, “was when Steve Sampson cut him, whatever, and Sacha was so pissed off. He said, ‘I’ll never play soccer again.’ I sat him down and say son, one idiot is going to tell you that you can’t play soccer? Let’s prove him wrong. I know physically he was small, but technically, I said somebody someday will appreciate that. And sure enough Manny saw it. When I flew on the recruiting trip I said, what do you see as a future for my son? You are looking at an investment, but so am I. Manny goes: ‘Slavko, Sacha could fit in my system. He could play our system. And it’s up to him how far he wants to go.’ I said, son, this college, this coach, is made for you. Not once has he questioned your ability.”
Here is part 3.
Check back for the following installments in the coming days leading up to the May 25th USMNT v Czech Republic match, in which Sacha will once again be fighting for his soccer life in what could be the most important game thus far in his career.
Banner image of Sacha Kljestan’s custom-engraved PlayStation 3 (a gift from EA Sports) photographed by Ben Hooper for TIAS.