this is all five parts of the story.
Sacha Kljestan throws up his hands. He did his best and doesn’t know what else to do. Maybe it’s time to quit. He’s thought about it before. One guy can only do so much. So many factors go into success or create failure. The opponent is only one of them.
Sacha sizes up his pre-teen cousin Moselle, who has her younger brother, Sterling, bouncing and banging up and down as she yanks harder on the back of his underwear. No one seems determined to make her stop. Sacha tries one last time. He’s out of his chair and tugging on her arms, but Moselle only releases a wicked smile and cackling laugh as she jerks harder on the elastic waist band as if the pull chord on a stubborn lawn mower. And Sterling is no help, enjoying the victimization a little too much. His giggling and screaming mixed with the occasional wince in his toothy smile roughly translates to: “What? Wedgies aren’t cool during dinner parties? Look at me!”
“Enough!” Sacha’s aunt, Robin, says with all the defeated charm a mom can muster when she knows her words hold little sway over the popular attention this audience holds for her children. Moselle finally relents. She and her brother scamper off to the family room. Sacha returns to the table. Little kids are curious things.
It’s two nights before Sacha’s fifth MLS season opener, and ten members of his extended family overflow the dining room of his parents’ modest two-story home on a quiet street in Huntington Beach, California. With the skirmish over, attention returns to Sacha. The more alcohol that goes down, the more opinions that come up. None of us can fathom Sterling’s delight in the wedgie, but neither can we make much sense of Sacha’s career.
Elite clubs by the age of 12. Regional Olympic Development Program by 14, then not even considered for the California state Under-15 team. Cut from the U-17 state team, only to star on the same team a few weeks later. Slow to garner attention with colleges and the national team program. One of only three league freshmen to earn Big East all-conference honors. Starter for the U-20’s at the 2004 Milk Cup; bench-warmer for the 2005 U-20 World Cup. Finalist for 2006 MLS Rookie of the Year. Poster boy for the 2008 U-23 Olympic team. Winner of U.S. Soccer’s Goal of the Year, Young Male Athlete of the Year, MLS All-Star and Best XI. By the end of 2008, Sacha Kljestan was in the front of a very short line of up-and-coming American soccer stars. EA Sports would soon choose him, along with global superstars John Terry and Cuauhtemoc Blanco for the cover of FIFA 10 in the number two market for the EA SPORTS FIFA Soccer franchise (U.K. is first).
In January 2009, a day after returning from a week-long trial with Celtic of the Scottish Premier League, Sacha scored the 11th hat trick in U.S. Men’s National Team history in an exhibition game against Sweden at the Home Depot Center. But the achievement didn’t translate to a transfer to Europe—in fact, it may have even killed it—and Sacha returned to MLS and his hometown club. Though his statistics didn’t dip as much from 2008 to 2009 as the vitriol would have it seem, critics unanimously called last season a failure for the creative midfielder. He started five World Cup qualifiers and went to South Africa for the Confederations Cup, but his playing time on the national team slowly disappeared. He dropped to the fringes of the team’s packed midfield player pool and lost his place in line. For as good as 2009 began, it ended just as bad.
Sacha enters this summer in the last year of his contract with a new coach at Chivas USA, a new captain’s armband, and a return to his preferred central midfield role. A solid start to the season and only-Bradley-knows-what-else earned him a call back to the national team and might mean a trip to the World Cup in South Africa. Might. Either way he’s definitely gone to Europe after the season, right? “We’ll see,” Sacha says. “Chivas is the team that let me grow and drafted me, so I owe a lot to them, but I also feel like it might be time to move on, so we’ll see. It’s too hard to say and too early to think about anything. So much is out of my control. So, we’ll see.”
Soccer careers are curious things.
The 4th floor, two-bedroom Santa Monica apartment Sacha shares with Jamielee Darley, his girlfriend of nearly 3 years, is full of bouncing sunlight and fresh breezes from the ocean a few blocks away, but the room fills anew with motion when Jamielee walks in. It’s been a big day for her. Hugs all around.
Fresh off the success of a second place showing in the Victoria’s Secret Angel search (and a Carl’s Jr. commercial), the model turned actress spent the morning running lines with the cast of HBO’s hit series Entourage, which she has joined in a reoccurring role as a limousine driver.
For Sacha and myself, the day disappeared with his light Monday practice to start the final week of preseason, lunch at Jonathan Bornstein’s family’s sandwich shop (part of the national chain Apple Spice Junction) around the corner from the Home Depot Center, and 18 holes at Recreation Park Golf Club with Jonathan Bornstein, Ante Javic, Dan Kennedy, and some friends in Long Beach. Needless to say, the recap of her day was more interesting than ours. Tales of homemade bread, 20-yard chip-ins, and stringing birdies together just couldn’t hang with the model’s first taste of a proper TV show and stories of Jeremy Piven cracking jokes around the reading table. It’s time to celebrate.
After a dinner of pasta topped with red sauce and Trader Joes chicken sausage, the pro-athlete-model/actress couple washed the dishes that had stacked up over the previous weekend when Jamielee visited family in Carmel, California, and Sacha was left home alone. The candy jar sat opened and almost empty, but by the end of the night Jamielee filled it back up, made the beds, and put everything back in order.
Sacha and Jamielee at home in Santa Monica.
“The glass candy jar on the coffee table is the signature piece of our entire house,” Jamielee says. “It’s an effort to keep it full with this guy.” She lays a backhand slap on Sacha’s flat stomach. With the dishes clean, the couple settles in for a night of video games and TV with friends. Real life Sacha kicks some ass as virtual Sacha on FIFA 10. Jamielee reads a magazine and surfs the internet. Thursday is family dinner night down in Huntington, but that’s about as exciting as things will get this week.
At 24, the days of partying and hitting the LA clubs (like Area, where he met Jamielee) are behind Sacha, not to say that an off-season trip to Las Vegas won’t pop up again on The Offsides Rules. “When I was 21 or 22, it was super fun,” he says of the LA scene. “Now, it’s just so bad for my body. I can’t do it anymore. I’ve had one beer this year so far. We used to go out on the road, stay out till 2am, get on a 6am plane, no problem. Guys would sleep in their cars in the stadium parking lots after a night out. A bunch of us were supposed to do a Vegas trip again this off-season, but no one ended up wanting to go.”
Now he just wants to eat something really good, sit on the couch, and chill. He’s got the girl; what’s the point of going out? And it makes training Monday much easier. “Mentally,” Sacha says, “I felt like I never had an off week, focusing or whatever. But physically I feel better now because I don’t go out anymore. I just stay home with my girl. Wha wha. It sucks. I can’t wait for you to go out of town again. Just kidding.”
This is the best bet MLS has for an American soccer-celebrity power couple. Dude and Bro are as common nicknames as the coupled cuteness of Jamis and Sach. They easily could have futures alongside Sal Masekela on ESPN’s X-games team—Sacha breaking down soccer tennis tournaments and Jamielee being the Erin Andrews type, except hotter. But even at this point that sounds like a step down.
The paparazzi aren’t camped out in front of their apartment building, but the couple is content in their relative seclusion. Go figure, Sacha and Jamielee are laid back Californian twenty-somethings without the daily worry of dollars but also without the personalities that might force others in their shoes into craving the celebrity lifestyle. They know they haven’t arrived. It just sounds like it from the soccer fan’s limited choices of Hollywood headlines. Simultaneously they’re on the cusp of stardom and the cusp of back down at the bottom. It’s a constant audition. That is one thing their two very different professions share and their more similar personalities protect. If they hold secrets worth stalking, I don’t see any in this domestic bliss.
The paparazzi aren’t always so uncaring. Wearing a black-and-white checked shirt, black tie, and properly fitted grey suit, it was slight, but Sacha stood out from the other, more conservatively suited USMNT players on the ESPY stage as they received the award for 2009’s Best Upset for their Confederations Cup victory over Spain. The outfit won him some “best dressed” mentions from fashion blogs. He had that look, even if they didn’t know who he was. For a few nights Sacha and Jamielee attended exclusive parties and socialized with the rich and famous, as a pro athlete and model living in Los Angeles should be. It’s not Becks and Posh, but in American soccer circles, at least until Landon finds a lady, they probably do more than most.
But this is American soccer, and there’s always a twist. The day after the awards show Sacha checked out of the swank Standard Hotel in Los Angeles and returned to his parents’ suburban home, a half hour or so down the coast in Huntington Beach, which he moved into after roommate Jason Hernandez was picked up by San Jose in the 2007 MLS expansion draft. It was supposed to be just for just a few months while he shopped for his own house, but the stint at mom and dad’s turned into almost two years when the economy collapsed and even pro athletes had trouble getting loans. The pile of Adidas shoe boxes in the corner of his bedroom, the closet full of soccer jerseys, and the office filled with memorabilia collected by his family—a Chivas golden boot, a “Got Milk?” Olympic poster, the cover of the FIFA 10 video game—the only tangible reminders of this other life.
Slavko Kljestan at home in the trophy room.
A few months ago Sacha moved out of his parents’ house and into the Santa Monica rental with Jamielee, but the upstairs of the Huntington house appears as if Sacha’s still living here. Downstairs a flat-screen TV shows a replay of a Champions League game as his father, Slavko, recalls telling his wife, Kim, how their infant sons, Sacha and his older brother by 21-months, Gordon, were going to be professional soccer players. “Even when they were babies, the cribs were full of soccer balls,” Slavko says in the Bond villain accent he still holds 30 years removed from the former Yugoslavia. “I would rearrange them when they slept. My wife says, ‘Hey what are you doing?’ You know, they wake up and there will be a ball here, there. I put them in the crib, and she’d take them out. It was a dream. My wife always complained about it. ‘Now they might not become soccer players, so don’t be disappointed.’ I’d say, they will be.”
Sacha doesn’t have the hardscrabble life story that draws attention. He lived a suburban existence, born into a similar house a few miles away, where Dad came home from contracting and carpentry work and took the boys to the soccer field to practice passing or penalty kicks. Dad coached his first soccer teams, and by the time Sacha was 5, he was dominating AYSO rec league opponents. “At that age,” Slavko says, “they just follow the ball, but Sacha knew. He would score 3, 4 goals in 10 minutes, and people would complain and make us play him in the goal so we didn’t crush teams. But I knew it wouldn’t always be that easy.”
I wonder when Slavko knew. Was it through his own hardships or successes? Was it during his professional playing days for the Celik football club in the former Yugoslavia? Or long before that when his father physically beat him for wanting to play the sport at all? Was it when he left the Serbian farm on which he was born to work in a furniture factory in Sarajevo and chase his football dream? Or after a visit to his sister in Vancouver when Canada and later the U.S. denied his attempts for permanent residence? Was it in the trunk of a car illegally crossing into the United States? Or the long hours of contemplation he had while hitchhiking from Washington state to Southern California? It must have been when, on the other end of the phone line, a complete stranger, whose name Slavko pulled out of a phonebook on the side of the highway in San Pedro, CA, because it sounded Serbian, recognized the name Slavko Klejstan from saved Celik newspaper clippings and offered him a job, a place to stay, and even a soccer club to play on. No way it would always be that easy.
That was 1980. Five years, a solid career, an American wife, and one son later, Sacha was born into a hardworking, middle class, soccer ball dream world (a sister, Vanessa, was born 5 years later). But if Sacha was going to be a professional soccer player, as he proclaimed he would be at the age of 10, it was going to require less dreaming and more work, because before him was an older brother with similar aspirations and a head start.
“We played against each other, not just soccer, but in every sport,” Sacha says. “I think it was good for me, probably better for me than it was for him, because he was always older and bigger and stronger than me. He could beat me in everything, and I wanted to beat him in everything.”
From the backyard Sacha followed Gordon onto the soccer fields, playing with his older brother’s teams and constantly battling with bigger boys. “It wasn’t always competitive,” Gordon tells me later over the phone. “It was always me trying to help him. He always played with my team and was a year or two younger than us. I always told him, you’ve got to play quicker. You’re not the strongest guy. You’re not the fastest guy, but if you play faster than everybody in your head, they you’ll still be better than everyone. Obviously we had our battles in practice, and arguments and fights over soccer tennis or whatever, but on the field, it was always me trying to help him, not compete against him.”
The payoff came for Sacha when he competed against his own age group for club, state and Olympic Development Program teams. “Playing with Gordon and older kids gave me an extra edge when I competed against my own age group,” Sacha says. “Like at 14, I played on the regional ODP team and was doing really well and close to being called into the national team.”
But that early success was short-lived. The Under-15’s came around, and Sacha didn’t even get called to the California state team. It would go on like this for awhile.
Puberty didn’t do anything for Sacha, not in the eyes of almost every soccer coach anyway. At 12 he was playing with Robbie Rogers and Sigi Schmid’s son on an elite club team, but when the highest levels held try-outs, Sacha was overlooked. In the classic American soccer cliche, Sacha was too small, too frail, not athletic enough. Freshman year of high school he was 5’4” and weighed 90 pounds. He didn’t make the varsity team at Huntington Beach High School, which by his own admission was not exactly a hotbed of soccer talent. “Then, between freshman and sophomore year, I grew like 7 inches,” the still lanky 6’1” 170-pounder says. “So I was 16 and 5’11” but only weighed like 110 pounds. I was super weak and not that fast. Sophomore year I made varsity, but never played. It was Gordon’s senior year and the team was good.”
“That coach didn’t know what he was doing,” Slavko says sitting on the couch across from Sacha. Before he even said it, from his effusive demeanor and outspoken opinions, you just knew this lovable antagonist had gotten under the track jacket of a few coaches.
“Which one,” I ask.
“Just about all of them,” Slavko replies.
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.”
Sacha played every minute of every game his freshman year as an attacking central midfielder. He finished second on the team in points, with 6 assists and 4 goals and was just one of three freshman to earn all-conference honors in the Big East. “I went there thinking I can get a good education because of soccer,” Sacha says. “But after my first month at Seton Hall, I was back to saying I want to play pro again. I was back on track with my original dream.”
If this was basketball or American football, his coaching worries and any self-doubt would be gone for a few years; barring injury he’d be on a linear track to the professional ranks. But for soccer’s most driven, there’s another dream: to play for the national team.
After his freshman year Sacha finally got the call from U-20’s coach Thomas Rongen. “He called me one morning at 6:30am,” Sacha says. “He was like, ‘Yeah, so you are going to Northern Ireland with us next week.’ It was the sweetest thing ever. All of my friends from Southern California, from ODP and stuff, had all played for the national team at some point. And always had the sweetest Nike gear. Greg Dalby, Ian Etherington, Kiel McClung, Taylor Canel. Three of those four aren’t even playing right now, but I was so jealous of them. I just wanted to be on the national team.”
Sacha started every game for Rongen’s team (playing in a 4-4-2 formation as the attacking midfielder) en route to a sixth place finish at the 2004 Milk Cup. For the first time the lanky kid was in a good place to grow. Then Rongen took a job at Chivas USA. “Sigi Schmid took over,” Sacha says, “And I was like, ugh, I was playing really well for Thomas, he started me in a bunch of games, but now I had to prove myself all over again.”
Sophomore year Sacha won NCAA Division I First-Team All-America honors after being reunited with Gordon, who transferred from Fullerton to Seton Hall. With thoughts of turning pro squelched by his coach and family (“For $30,000, it’s not worth it”), the following summer he turned his attention back to the national team. Sigi Schmid held his first camp and brought Sacha in, to that camp and every U-20 camp after that. So maybe this one would work out too. After two prominent coaches had figured out and unleashed Sacha’s talents, perhaps the coaching community at large was starting to come around to the midfielder’s worth?
“Sigi had no idea what to do with Sacha,” Slavko says. “He played him in defense.”
Sacha made the squad for the Under-20 World Cup in Holland. The team played a 4-2-4 or a 4-2-3-1 with Sacha coming off the bench as one of two holding midfielders. The U.S. won the first game against Argentina—Sacha didn’t play. They tied Germany—he didn’t play in that one either. Already qualified for the next round, Sacha started against Egypt. He thought he played well but got demoted back to a substitute role the following game against Italy. He was first off the bench, placed in a defensive midfield role. “It didn’t go so well,” Sacha says. “I was a bench guy who didn’t play that much. Sigi Schmid threw me into the game; we were losing 2-1 to Italy. I tried to block a cross and it went into my own net.
“The whole experience was weird. But I always looked at Clint [Dempsey], when he first came into MLS. He barely played at all at his U-20 World Cup either. And I was like, what’s going on? This dude is killing it in MLS as a rookie and last year he couldn’t play on the U-20’s? So that always gave me confidence when I wasn’t playing on the U-20’s—well if Clint didn’t play and he’s ballin, at least I think I can still play in MLS and do well.”
“[Sigi Schmid] played him in the wrong position,” Slavko says. “But what can you do? Those are the coach’s choices. I was sitting together with Manny watching, and he said, ‘What the hell is he doing?’”
“He was more of an attacking midfielder,” Schmid tells me, recalling his time as Sacha’s coach and Slavko’s target. “And that’s what we brought him in as, but as time went on we saw that he had such a good work rate that he could be a box to box midfielder as well for us. So he filled both of those roles. What do I say? Let me just put it like this. Obviously Slavko can have his feelings at the end of the day. Sacha hadn’t been called in to any national team camp until I called him in, so whether it was to play a more offensive role or whether he had to adapt into a more defensive role, I think the most important thing is that he was a member of the Under-20 team.”
Schmid forgot about Sacha’s short stint under Thomas Rongen, but makes a point nonetheless. At some point, you’re proud to just be included on a national team roster and you work your ass off to provide whatever is asked of you. But this is the imperfect world of sports, of soccer—perhaps the most ambiguous of them all when it comes to assigning a player’s worth on the free form field with ten others—and that conversation will never stop.
“We thought for our [Seton Hall] team and for him,” Schellscheidt says, “it was best to have Sacha in more of a free role. Because the more he was on the ball, the better off he was. Because I always think of him as a player who makes everyone around him better. That’s the biggest compliment I can give a player. It’s no coincidence he set the single season assist record here and had a lot of goals. Usually it’s one or the other, but Sacha could do both.
“Now Sigi’s record speaks for itself. But everyone may like a different player a little bit more. So, me watching that team, they had a bit of an athletic appearance. I thought there were players out there that maybe—it’s a matter of opinion—that didn’t belong on the field. For me, I thought Sacha belonged on the field. From my eyes, let’s put it that way. I don’t know the details, and you’ve got to be careful making comments when you don’t see things up close, but a few guys on that roster I would have had in the line-up a bit more.”
But Schellscheidt admits Sacha needed to work on his defense, a critical opinion which also stands as reference to the American game. A game that might not be up to Sacha’s level. So is he good enough or not? I ask Schellscheidt, if on the growth curve of American soccer, as the national program pushes for victories, does Sacha’s game find itself ahead of his time? “Yes, you could say that,” Schellscheidt says. “If the league were able to get some more good players in here that bring the level up, it would be better for Sacha.”
Somewhere Jose Francisco Torres is nodding, thankful he at least plays for a good team in a league that is not MLS. Somewhere Clint Dempsey thinks about whether or not to hide his bag of tricks when going out to fight another day on the English pitch. If Sacha played in France or Spain, the two nations whose leagues everyone I spoke to thinks he would fit best, Sacha’s story might be different. Then again, somewhere Freddy Adu is thinking that he’d trade boots (though probably not bank accounts) with Sacha in a heartbeat.
Reunited at Seton Hall
The 2005 college season was another solid one for Sacha. He made third team All America, was Big East Offensive Player of the Year, and set the single season assist record with 15. It was time to turn pro. Selected as a Generation Adidas player, Sacha was now sure to see more money in MLS, but, as the young player still wondered with every new team, what would MLS see in him?
But first you get the money.
MLS offered a 4-year and a 5-year contract. The 4-year was less money each year, so it seemed like a no-brainer to Sacha at the time to take the guaranteed money, because you just didn’t know. Going into MLS, Sacha could have been drafted by the Galaxy, who had just won the championship. Sacha probably would have then rode their bench his rookie season. So you take the guaranteed money. “Luckily I ended up at Chivas,” Sacha says. “And played a lot. I just needed to get my money back then, so I took the three years guaranteed with two option years. My first year in the league I was guaranteed like $85,000, which was a lot of money for me. You took it because you didn’t know what your future was. I could have stayed in college another year, went into the draft, and made like $35,000 a year without Generation Adidas. Back then, it was get the money and then we’ll see.”
“I wanted him to stay in college,” Slavko says. “But he showed me his math. I said, damn, these people in MLS are really smart, but they do get you by the balls.”
Signed before the draft, it was just a matter of where he would go. Marvell Wynne went 1st and Mehdi Ballouchy second. Sigi Schmid, now coaching at Columbus had the third pick. Kansas City had the 4th, and Chivas 5.
“Sigi wanted to draft him,” Slavko says. “But I said you don’t touch him after the U-20 World Cup. Play him in defense! If Sacha went to Sigi, you wouldn’t be here right now talking to us. No one would be here.”
“We needed a forward,” Sigi Schmid says about his mentality going into the draft with Columbus. “That is where our attention was at the time. Also, I think Slavko might have had a heart attack if I had picked up Sacha, even though I think Sacha would have done very well for us. We would have loved to have had him. Under the old coaching regime there [at ChivasUSA], there was talk about moving him, and we were one of the teams that was interested. So, everything becomes relative. You take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you.”
Columbus drafted Jason Garey. Yura Movsisyan was next in line on several teams’ wish lists. One of those teams hoping he would fall was thought to be Chivas. But Yura went fourth to KC, leaving Bob Bradley to take Sacha at five. Some say Bradley didn’t want Sacha, and the coach’s penchant toward defensive tactics at Princeton, the Metrostars, Chivas, and now the national team, don’t hurt those rumors. But Bradley was friendly with Manny Schellscheidt and attended Seton Hall games. Bradley’s Metrostars even played Seton Hall a few times when Sacha was there, so it can’t be said he didn’t know what he was getting with Sacha.
Jesse Marsch, 14-year MLS veteran and now USMNT assistant coach, remembers it slightly differently. Marsch was new to Chivas that year, but not to Bob Bradley, whom the aggressive midfielder had won a MLS Cup with in Chicago. “Bob had mentioned going into the draft,” Marsch says, “that Sacha was a guy they were looking at. I knew Bob had thought highly of Yura going into it, and was looking to see if that person could fit into the mix, but he also mentioned Sacha in that same breath. At the time Bob was looking to pick up some building blocks and both of those guys were high on the list.”
If it wasn’t the perfect system, Chivas USA turned out to be perhaps the perfect place for Sacha, who, whatever the rumors said, was happy to be playing for a coach with a reputation of giving rookies opportunities to play. Sacha rented a tiny two-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the ocean and near his hometown, in Redondo Beach, with Seton Hall and Chivas teammate Jason Hernandez. They got a hand-me-down futon from teammate Brian Dunseth, but Sacha went out and bought a 60-inch flatscreen TV. With the U-23 national team disbanded during an off year in the Olympic cycle, and Sacha far from Bruce Arena’s radar for the 2006 World Cup, Sacha could focus on MLS with an immediate chance to contribute on a team looking to get past the expansion label.
And he did, starting 31 games and tallying seven assists, the most among MLS rookies. He was a finalist for Rookie of the Year, playing in the central midfield with Marsch, for a coach that preached defense.
“I was incredibly impressed with his vision,” Dunseth, now an analyst for Fox Soccer Channel, says of his first impressions of Sacha. “He has that Clint Mathis vision where he is almost taking snapshots of what is going on around him on the field without really having to look. My biggest curiosity for him at the time was, I wonder what position he will end up playing. Because he is not the fastest player in the world, but he has a great engine on him; he’s always fit; it seemed he never got tired, and when you have the ability to keep possession and rarely lose it, I thought if this kid could find the right position and the right team, he could have a very, very strong career. And this was before real preseason had even started his rookie season.”
Bradley told Marsch that Sacha was his project. The coach recognized his skill and ease with the ball but wanted Marsch to concentrate on his understanding defensive responsibilities on both sides of the ball. “When I talked to Sacha about these things,” Marsch says, “his eagerness to learn overwhelmed me. He wanted to get better. He wanted to know what I thought. It was fun to work with him and play with him. He almost won rookie of the year, which is no small feat playing in a new league for a new team in the central midfield.”
Chivas assistant coach Preki took the helm in 2007 after Bradley bolted for the national team. When Paulo Nagamura joined the team early in the season, Sacha slid out on the wing, the thought being to free him up offensively and remove some of the central and defensive responsibilities. Sacha started every game he appeared in that season and put up four goals towards the team’s first conference title. His 13 assists were good enough for third in the league. Two years in MLS, everybody could now see Sacha’s skill, even on a team set on winning the defensive war before running an attack. With both Olympic and World Cup 2010 qualifying approaching, it was setting up to be Sacha’s national coming out party.
Though he earned his first cap (and assist) for the senior side under Bradley in June of 2007 against China and was part of a B-team sent to the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela, Sacha’s former coach didn’t call him into the more important tournament of the year, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which included an invite to the 2009 Confederations Cup for the winner. If Bradley indeed wanted to draft Sacha in 2006, he had but a passing interest in him for the national team in 2007. There’s club and then there’s country and then there’s the senior men’s team.
The U-23 team became Sacha’s focus. A lifelong dream of his since becoming fascinated with Michael Johnson at the 1996 Summer Games, the Olympics brought all the necessary pieces together: a coach, Peter Nowak, that understood how to use him, players that were up to his ability level, and a tournament he was highly motivated to play in at a time when he was playing his best soccer. Sacha occasionally captained the team.
In the midst of his third MLS campaign, in which he was named to the MLS All-Star team, Sacha became the poster boy for Team USA in a “Got Milk?” marketing campaign and a media darling for an Olympic press core forced with presuming breakout stars. Some of the American soccer coaching community may have missed him, but the marketers picked this one right.
Picked right even if not spelled right.
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-hat trick 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.”
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.”
Banner photo by Ben Hooper for TIAS.
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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