We’ll See About Sacha pt.1

Sacha Kljestan

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
Sacha and Jamielee at home in Santa Monica

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“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
Slavko Kljestan at home in the trophy room

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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 size 4 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.

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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 photographed by Ben Hooper for TIAS. Sacha’s visible tattoo “VGSK” on his left forearm represents the first initials of his family–Venessa, Gordon, Slavko, Kim.

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