The dream team. Not The Dream Team. The Hulking NBA players walked next to the soccer team at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Oylmpics, but for an U-23 American soccer team, this was the best yet. Dreaming back to 1996 and his 100-meter hero, Sacha asked Adidas if they could make him gold boots. They gave him silver instead. Hey, U.S. men’s soccer has never won any color medal. “I told them silver would do just fine,” Sacha says.
President Bush addressed all the athletes in a big gymnasium prior to the procession. “I don’t know a lot about sports,” the former owner of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers said. “But go out and win the gold for the USA.”
“It was pretty funny,” says Sacha, who does an above average impression of W. “I was sitting there laughing and other guys on the team, who are super republican, were so into meeting him and stuff. But it was cool; a great experience. Jason Kidd was a pretty big soccer fan. So he was stoked to meet us. Chris Paul knows Michael Parkhurst from Wake Forest. It was cool to get recognized by the NBA guys. We took photos with some of them. We met Lebron and Dwayne Wade, who are my favorite players.”
By the time the torch was lit, the U.S. had already beat Japan 1-0 and looked poised to medal. “Our Olympic team was so much better than our U-20 team,” Sacha says. “That team was an unbelievable team. I don’t think there will be another U.S. Olympic team like that. The 2000 team did really well, but the talent we had on the 2008 team was unbelievable; We had Jozy, Charlie, Holden, Bradley, Benny, Edu, Freddy, Guzan, Parkhurst. It was guys who were all playing for the full national team too. We could have easily won a medal.”
With just minutes to go, up 2-1 against Holland in the second game, the U.S. team appeared destined for the next round, but an injury-time free kick slipped under a jumping wall, catching everyone off guard and sliding into the net. The game ended in a draw. Going into the next game against Nigeria, the U.S. needed a tie or a win, but an early red card to defender Michael Orozco sent the Americans reeling, losing 3-1, and crashing out of the tournament.
Sacha played every minute of the competition, led the team with 2 goals, and was without question the breakout star for the U.S. team. But he found no satisfaction.
“It was the most difficult loss in a tournament in my entire life,” Sacha says. “It’s crazy being in a tournament like that. You’re just there and all of a sudden you are done and you’re out and immediately flying home. Worst flight ever. We should have won a medal and made history for U.S. Soccer. It bums me out to this day that we’ll never have another—I’ll never have another Olympics like that, because of the age-limit thing. It still saddens me to talk about it. It sucks.”
Sacha’s body language changes. He squirms a little bit. The tattoo of the Olympic wreath with 2008 in roman numerals and the Latin word Somnium, meaning “to dream,” peaks out of his shirt sleeve. He’s got the ego of an elite athlete but there’s an intelligent emotional young man here too. His strong grades prove the former, the later surely known to MLS referees. Off the field, it mellows into a playful humility.
“Peter Nowak is one of the best coaches I have ever played for,” Sacha says, still trying to make sense of the defeat. “We played a nice style and had a lot of good players, which were also a lot of my best friends that I grew up with. Like Stuart, Benny, Robbie, Charlie; It’s crazy, maybe you get to play on the national team with some of these guys, but to play in the Olympics with four of your best friends is one of the coolest things ever.”
“Amazing Awaits” on Sacha’s coffee table.
After finishing the MLS season on an injury-plagued Chivas as an All Star with a career high in goals (5) and the second most assists in the league (7), Sacha was named to the MLS Best XI, earned U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Athlete of the Year award, and won the fan’s vote for “goal of the year” for his strike against Holland in Beijing. He made eight appearances in 2008 for the senior national team, starting five World Cup qualifying games, tied for third most on the team. Before 2008 was over, Sacha made a few appearances for EA Sports with Landon Donovan. A few months later, he landed the American cover.
“The Olympics were a good stepping stone for me,” Sacha says. “Some teams in Europe got to see me, which is why I think Celtic came forth. But also I got to prove myself at the international level. Because in the U-20’s I scored an own goal and didn’t play much. This was redemption a little bit. I showed that I can be a good player on the international level. Not just a bench player.”
Celtic called from Scotland, ready to sign Sacha. He just needed to fly over and sign the contract before returning to national team camp at the Home Depot Center. The beginning of 2009 was about making dreams come true, or at least that’s what Sacha thought.
“Going to Celtic was the weirdest thing for me,” Sacha says. “Because we were in national team camp and my agent at the time, Alder Weiss, never told me anything about going on trial at Celtic. I thought I was going to sign my papers and be presented as a player and get my jersey. I get to the airport to go to Scotland, and he was just like, ‘Yeah, if everything goes well maybe in a week they will sign you.’ And I was like, what the hell is going on here? I thought I was leaving camp to go sign my contract. I thought it was completely a done deal.”
Sacha went for a six-day trial. The first day was a rehabilitation day after a game day for Celtic’s first team. The second day was an off-day, so Sacha trained with the reserve side. “They were really young,” Sacha says. “I was 23 and the oldest player there. It was not a good level. It was easy. I trained twice with the starters and thought I had two pretty good training sessions. The last day I played in a reserve game against, I don’t even remember, one of the bad teams from the Scottish Premier League, and we won 8-0. They might as well not even have touched the ball the entire game. It was the easiest game I ever played in. A couple days of practice, and that game was all I got.”
Sacha flew home on a Friday to return to national team camp. He went through Omega fitness tests and met with Bob Bradley, who Sacha convinced to let him play in Saturday’s game against Sweden. He scored a hat trick.
Post-game press conference.
“After the game I was thinking if it wasn’t done before, it was done now,” Sacha says. “But I also had the feeling that when I went to Celtic, just because of the time I was there—I only trained with the first team twice—I didn’t feel super wanted while I was there; It wasn’t a big deal to them whether they had me or not. So I thought to myself after the game, trying to stay positive, even if I don’t go to Celtic I’ll still be fine because I still want to go some place where I feel like I want to be the man there. So if it doesn’t go down, I won’t be disappointed. But then it didn’t go down, and I was disappointed. It was a dream game for sure. But it just didn’t happen after that.”
It didn’t happen. It’s what people say when they don’t know the reason why or don’t want to face it. Did he not perform that well in Scotland? Did the hat trick bump his transfer fee out of reach? Did MLS and/or Chivas just not want to part with their budding star? It can really eat at a guy, not knowing. “I don’t know what happened with negotiations between MLS and Celtic,” Sacha says. “If the price was driven up or if Celtic just didn’t want me at that time or what, but it didn’t happen. I think it was money, but I don’t know.”
Monaco and Anderlecht also came forward after the Olympics but told the Kljestans they couldn’t afford the transfer fee, a theoretical amount no one outside of MLS headquarters knows. “It was disappointing for sure,” Sacha says. “In Europe or elsewhere if you don’t want to sell a player than you offer him a new contract and pay him what he deserves, but I was never offered a new contract either. I was like, what am I doing here? They said I had a contract that I signed, and I should honor it. So I guess that is what I will do.”
January 31 came and the European transfer window closed. Sacha started and played 86 minutes in the first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying that February, but it quickly went down hill from there. From Columbus, OH, he flew to Guadalajara, Mexico, for Chivas USA preseason. On the second day of camp Sacha sprained his ankle bad enough to keep him off the field for weeks, missing the entire preseason.
“I came back right before the season started,” Sacha says. “And then just didn’t start out the season well. I wasn’t playing well. I was just in a zone when I wasn’t even into it that much. I don’t know if maybe me and Preki weren’t getting along or if it was just the team, we weren’t meshing well, I don’t know. I just wasn’t very determined you could say.” (Preki declined interview requests.)
The injury nagged him off and on for the first half of the season. “Basically a lot of games I didn’t feel 100%, and that’s tough,” Sacha says. “But it’s just making excuses; I tried to fight through it.” In June he went to the Confederations Cup with an opportunity to solidify his worth to Bradley. He was a late-game offensive spark in the opener, a loss to Italy, but drew a red card in the second game against Brazil, a game he started due to Ricardo Clark’s suspension the previous game. It was a silly tackle more than a dangerous one, but the Brazilian Ramires made the most out of the glancing blow. Sacha played a few minutes in the next Brazil game but was an ineffective addition coming into the game late, down 3-2. That would be it for a while.
Sacha found himself on the outside looking in for the rest of the year. Bradley told the midfielder he wouldn’t be going to Mexico City with the team in August of 2009. Sacha’s production was down and so was his club team. “I understood I had to work hard to get back in,” Sacha says. “And I felt like after he told me that, it was a little bit of a realization that I need to get back into the national team. And for the final 3 months of the season I thought I was playing really well and scoring goals again, and we (Chivas) got back into the playoff picture. I thought at that point I was playing some of the best football of my career.”
He picked up his less than determined play, pushing Chivas into the playoffs and matching his career best 5 goals in a season. But it wasn’t enough. Crosstown rivals LA Galaxy beat them in the first game of the playoffs, the critics destroyed him, and the national team appeared to forget about him. It transported Sacha back to all the other coaches, all the other teams that passed him up. Was his best not good enough, or just not what the coaches wanted?
Besides the national team snub, he felt great. He was back to playing his best. For critics still harping on his early season disappearing act, Sacha had officially at this point, if not before, fallen into the category of streaky players. Whether it was coaches, systems, or his own desire and ability dragging him down, Sacha found relief with another call into the last two national team games of the year—both losses against Slovakia and Denmark in November. He played the final 10 minutes against Slovakia, and against Denmark he didn’t even make the bench. “It was a new blow against me, again,” Sacha says. “I was really lost on what to think about it. The World Cup seemed unlikely then, it was another one of those, I guess we’ll see.”
Here is Part 5.
Banner image of Sacha Kljestan photographed by Ben Hooper for TIAS.
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