Sacha is in line for a spot in the American midfield, but where exactly he stands only Bob Bradley knows. The American coach deals in elusive simplicity, which he projects to the media and, sometimes it turns out, even his players. Sacha didn’t know what Bradley was thinking. He wasn’t sure if he had any chance of going to the World Cup. In November of last year, following the game against Denmark, coach and player sat down one-on-one.
“He is a bit vague sometimes when he speaks to us,” Sacha says about his past, present, and he hopes future coach. “He and I had a pretty long and hard conversation in Denmark. And it was really tough to hear. I don’t want to go into detail about what he told me, but yeah it was tough. And disappointing for sure, and hard, but I guess another doubter, another person who doesn’t believe in you at one given point or time, and you have to change their mind.”
With European players left to their clubs, Sacha went into 2010’s January camp with the same old goal—prove your worth. “I figured I had to bust my ass as hard as I could to get back into the team at January camp,” Sacha says. “And I think I did a pretty good job of doing that, of giving myself a pretty good chance to be involved in the team again come World Cup time with the game against El Salvador.”
Sacha played 60 minutes in a 3-1 loss to Honduras in January and scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over El Salvador in February, but he didn’t travel with the team to Holland for the third and final friendly of camp the following week.
Here we go again? Not exactly.
He thought if he played really well versus El Salvador that Bob would bring him to the Holland game. “I spoke to him after the game,” Sacha says. “I was still on a high of scoring the goal and winning the game, and he’s like, ‘We’re not taking you to Holland.’ That was a downer, but I spoke to Jesse Marsch the next day—he’s with the staff now and has been a good guy in my whole career. He called me the next day and was like, ‘Don’t be disappointed. I could tell on your face that you were bummed that you’re not going to Holland.’ He was just like, ‘We are taking a look at some other guys and you have done pretty well to work yourself back into the picture. Now it’s up to you basically to see how you do in your first five, six games of MLS season this year to win your spot. So go out and do your thing. Don’t take any breaks, don’t relax, just keep going.’ And that’s what I’m trying to do. We’ll see.”
On May 11, Sacha was called into the 30-man USMNT camp at Princeton University, Bradley’s alma mater and just an hour’s drive South from Seton Hall.
“We’re at a point,” Marsch says about his one-time teammate and prodigy, “where Sacha’s game is going through waves. I’d call the last two years an adjustment period. Now he needs to begin the steady climb where he is getting better everyday, and have it not be so streaky, and realize what it takes to be a great player in this league or maybe in Europe.”
Maybe it speaks to the increased quality of the national team player pool, or the pressure of the constant audition. It’s a daily battle for a lot of different guys in Sacha’s category—those young guys packing the midfield pool like Holden, Rogers, Beasley, Feilhaber, Edu, and Torres, some playing in MLS, some overseas. They have had opportunities for the national team—made the most out of some of them—but aren’t yet the everyday guys. “In some instances,” Marsch says. “It’s going to be how they help balance out the team in terms of what is needed and what is necessary outside the core group of players. So form is important, but there’s also the thing of how do they fit into this group of 23.”
“Sacha’s become a more all around player [since I first met him],” Bradley told me at the end of April. “Physically he has improved himself. I think he has been able to transition well from being a talented college player capable of making some very big plays to a player who can now compete at a higher level with the physical demands.
“Then there’s the ability as you go through a career to be a pro, to understand the things you can control and the things that are out of your control. And still in a consistent way, train and play in a way that makes the difference for your team. That consistency is still an important area for Sacha. I think when we talk about steps along the way that is probably now the part that he needs to continue to show.”
Given Sacha’s career, that sounds like pretty good advice, even if it’s true for every player in the world. So maybe it’s not the coaches, but the streaky effort and at times indifferent motivation that keeps Sacha from breaking through? Even Slavko goes out of his way to make sure he tells me that he wants to thank certain coaches in Sacha’s career for their guidance to his son, specifically naming Schellscheidt, Nowak, Vasquez, Bradley, and Milutin Soskic-Sole, the former U.S. goal keeping coach, Serbian soccer legend, and the guy who tipped Rongen to Sacha for the U-20’s.
But no matter if you love or hate your coach, at a point, it doesn’t matter who dispenses the constructive criticism; it still comes down to the player. How hard will he fight? How determined is he? How bad does he want to be the best? At each intersection, even when colliding with a coach, Sacha took the hit on his game and used it to get better, get closer to where he wants to be. “It’s not necessarily what the coach or veteran has to say to the young guy,” Marsch says, “as much as how much they are willing to think about it and apply it to what they do everyday. And I think Sacha has been good at that. Whether things work out or not for him this summer, I know he still has a big future ahead of him.”
For the first time in his professional career, Sacha says he has a coach who, like Schellscheidt at Seton Hall, wants to play the way he does. Martin Vasquez called Sacha an icon of the franchise, but whether or not Chivas has the pieces on the field to support Sacha is still to be determined in a strong MLS Western Conference.
To understand Sacha and the national team—any player and their national team—understand this, as explained to me time and again by coaches and players when Sacha’s or any other player’s place in the USMNT 23-man squad came up: Bob Bradley is only measured by results in the end. If he doesn’t get results, somebody else will take over. To get results at the highest level, defending becomes a huge issue. That issue is compounded exponentially for a team and a nation lacking world class offensive power or enough technical ability to win the war of possession.
Agree, and it becomes very hard not to say Bradley does things the way they need to be. If this were Spain, it would be different. The U.S. talent pool is not that deep. If there were a greater number of really gifted, talented players, the team would look different on the field and solve all of its problems. The U.S. would be Brazil, Americans complaining that the team is not dynamic enough. But Brazilian manager Dunga also is looking to win, not commune with joga bonito and the ghosts of Brazil’s past. So, back to the ambiguous beautiful game. Even when Brazil wins, the silent majority sounds loud with criticism.
For the U.S. team then, it’s hard work and hard defending to stay in a game and hope for the counter attack. “If as a team,” Schellscheidt says, “the U.S. could hold the ball more of the time, Sacha could be the guy. He knows what to do with the ball and without the ball. Not many guys on the national team are like that. We still have guys relying on athletic ability, their strength, their work rate. But in terms of brains, some of them are not that sharp. And it’s the same for him on Chivas. Other guys need to be able to also do the things Sacha can do in order to free him up. The cast around him has something to do with it, because in soccer it’s about the cast. One guy can’t do it by himself. If his teams could allow him more freedom and less expectation, it would really pay off for Sacha.”
The race is on. Seven players need to be cut this week from the 30-man USMNT roster.
There is a saying, Schellscheidt shared with me, that goes something like, when winning is everything, attacking is a privilege that comes after good defending. The number one order is defending. Don’t allow a goal, and you can still win the game. Until that changes, Sacha will need to get lucky and find the right club team that still plays an open game, so that his creative skill set does not dwindle. He needs to be lucky enough to find a coach who is good at developing young players. So far in 2010, Martin Vasquez has brought some hope to Chivas and Sacha’s game, but there’s still the question of the supporting cast. “It’s not so hard to find a few more guys to go get the ball back,” Schellscheidt says. “But guys like Sacha, with ideas, they are hard to find.”
“Watching and being a part of MLS in the early stages,” Dunseth says, “and playing for the U-20’s and the Olympic Team, and then never getting a U.S. cap but still being in 7, 8, 9 different U.S. camps; here’s the thing. It’s really right place, right time. And in MLS how many times do you see players who are ridiculous players, who have a shitload of talent, but it’s the team, it’s the system, it’s the salary, it’s the injuries, it’s the coaching decisions. All of those things come into play in a weird roundabout way. Soccer careers are curious things.”
Sacha looked confident at camp heading into roster cuts.
Whatever happens this summer, come the fall, consider Sacha gone, to help ensure he never misses another opportunity, to ensure a better chance for freedom on the field. Sacha and Jamielee’s Santa Monica apartment wouldn’t be hard to pack up; they’ve barely settled in. Though the happy couple is content in California, there is a sense that it is fleeting. Lounging on their oversized couch, the ocean breeze coming in through the balcony’s screen door, they look at each other and smile when I ask about a move to Europe. His contract is up, and while team sources say Chivas is attempting to negotiate a new contract, the team has never shown a penchant to spend big on players. Maybe that will also change under Vasquez, but “they’ve offered one contract,” Sacha says. “And we’ve said no so far.”
So he’s gone.
“We’ll see,” Sacha says. “I’ve had the dream of playing in Europe for a long time, and I have been pretty adamant about wanting to play in Europe one year, and Jamie has supported me and said she will go to Europe with me. It might come down to staying in MLS as well. They’ll have to offer me the right contract because, while it’s not all about money, I want to live a comfortable life and have a comfortable life for my family, and I know I can do that in Europe. It would be nice to do that in the States as well, but we’ll see.”
When he says Jamielee supports him, he means more than just emotionally. The All-American beauty was born in England and holds a UK passport, that golden ticket for Americans looking to play in Europe, but who don’t fulfill the necessary national team playing time requirements that can block young players from getting the necessary work permit.
“It’s great,” Sacha says. “I did my research on her before I—just kidding.”
“I almost got sold to Brad Guzan,” Jamielee jokes.
“Brad had trouble with his work permit,” Sacha says. “I was like, you can give me a hundred grand—No, it’s good. She has a dream of living in England as well, so we’ll take a good hard look at every place when it comes time. Hopefully before that I get to go back to South Africa.”
He feels like he can contribute to the national team, whether it is in the starting eleven or off the bench. He feels that in tough games, in big games for the national team, he’s played well, and contributed to the team. He thinks the older guys on the team still believe in him, something Sacha pinpoints as important. “I think when I am on good form,” Sacha says, “I’m still one of the top midfielders who can contribute in the ways Bob wants me to. Obviously there are some talented guys, and we all have our ups and downs, but when it comes down to it, when I am on form, I deserve to be on the team.”
Back in January camp Marsch told Sacha something else, which he says stuck with him. At the end of the day, all you can do is work as hard as you possibly can, and do everything you possibly can to play well. If the coach decides not to bring you, you don’t want to have a feeling like you could have done more. You did everything in your power to make the team, and if you don’t make it, there is nothing you can do about it. But don’t have that feeling like you left something out. “It sounds like, oh play every game as your last,” Sacha says. “But it’s true. That’s what I’m doing. I have to.”
“In this country, it’s the nature of the beast,” Hernandez says. “There are tons of guys who come and go through those teams and programs that you don’t see today. Guys get cut, guys who barely made the team and aren’t playing anymore. For every guy that comes through that system and makes it, there’s 5, 6, 7 guys who you never hear from again. And for some guys that serves as motivation, if they didn’t make it, and they use that to prove people wrong and really stick it to them. Sacha is living proof of that.”
Full re-print of the entire story coming soon.
Banner photo and Princeton training images photographed by Nick Werner for TIAS.
Photo outtakes from my time with Sacha can be found on Facebook.
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