Sacha Kljestan was chosen fifth in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft (out of New Jersey's own Seton Hall University) by Chivas USA. After making 114 appearances and scoring 15 goals (in the MLS regular season) with Chivas, he transferred to Belgian side, Anderlecht in mid-2010. Over five seasons, Kljestan made 132 appearances, tallying 18 goals. Cue 2015.
How it all went down: newly crowned RBNY head coach, Jesse Marsch, traded midfielders Eric Alexander and Ambroise Oyongo to the Montreal Impact in exchange for the #1 allocation position and Felipe Martins. With that #1 pick, Kljestan was signed by the New York Red Bulls. Kljestan would be the middle man of the attacking midfield in RBNY's 4-2-3-1 formation.
After Marsch stated he wanted to choose the best guys for the team, it didn't appear that way. He coached Martins in Montreal and was the assistant for the USMNT when Kljestan played: the new signings could be seen as coach's favorites, and lesser players than the squad had lost in a turbulent post-season. Good players, sure - but not necessarily the sort of signings a fan base universally embraces from the moment their names appear on the roster.
Let's set the scene. Kljestan came from a good team in Europe that made UEFA Champions League while he played for them. He was not the truly big name the Red Bulls had made a habit of acquiring, but he was the biggest name picked up in the off-season, with international caps and Champions League pedigree. So he faced perhaps the greatest expectations of any of RBNY's off-season signings. The club gave up a lot to get him, he was an accomplished pro: all eyes on Sacha.
And it was assumed that Kljestan would make a quick transition back into MLS since he had played here before. But things did not go as planned.
After beginning the season unbeaten in six games, the Red Bulls were on a three-game losing streak by Week 16. RBNY had a bye in Week 15, so you think that would give time for Kljestan to focus and lead the team back to winning ways.... wrong. During the Week 16 matchup with the Vancouver Whitecaps, Kljestan earned a straight red card in the 10th minute. The Red Bulls would go on to lose that game 2-1.
Before we move forward in the season. Let's consider how Kljestan performed through this point in the season: after 14 games, he only had 2 goals and 1 assist. Diving deeper into MLS Fantasy stats, he was only scoring 3.71 points per game (you get 1 point for appearing in a game, and another point for playing 60 minutes). So he really wasn't doing too much with his time on the field to excite the Fantasy stat-keepers.
He only served two crosses into the box up to this point in the season. TWO! He also had 40 CBAI (clearances, blocks and interceptions). So he was busy, just not in the way traditionally associated with a player in what is traditionally thought of as the #10 spot: the central attacking midfield role, the archetypal play-making position. His fantasy value increased and decreased slightly, but he started the season at $9.0M and was still sitting at $9.0M after the red card.
He served his one-game suspension in the first half of Week 17, when RBNY beat Real Salt Lake 1-0. Kljestan returned to the XI in the second half of Week 17 against new rivals, New York City FC. Not only did the Red Bulls win the match 3-1, but Kljestan grabbed two assists. The rest of the season is history and the Red Bulls have another Supporter's Shield in their trophy case.
Now, let's look at Kljestan's stats over the final 19 games: 6 goals, 13 assists. What a huge improvement. And his fantasy points per game more than doubled from 3.71 to 7.84. His two crosses ballooned to 43. His CBAI was at 40 the first 14 games; over the final 19 games it was 35. That's significant because CBAI is a DEFENSIVE statistic. Kljestan was creating assists and crosses, contributing more offensively. He didn't put himself in position to record as many CBAI. Leave that to Dax McCarty, Martins, Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle.
It has been suggested Kljestan plays a dual role for RBNY: he is part of the core attacking quartet up front, but he is also the advanced destroyer, the defensive vanguard, helping the Red Bulls control space and possession by keeping their opponents under pressure as close to their own goal as can be achieved. The Fantasy stats suggest the dual role was perhaps more like two different roles: largely a defensive contributor in the first half of the season; a vital attacking contributor for the second half of the year.
Part of that might be him and the team settling in to the tactical plan. Part of it is undoubtedly because he took over set-piece duties from Felipe Martins and penalty kicks from Bradley Wright-Phillips in mid-season. Part of it might just be Sacha, stepping up to meet the expectations loaded on him at the start of the year.
In those 19 games after the red card, his fantasy value skyrocketed from $9.0M to $10.7M. For comparison, Bradley Wright-Phillips scored 17 goals this season and his value only went from $10.5M to $11.4M. Kljestan scored 201 fantasy points to BWP's 180. Both scores were good enough for them to feature on this season's Fantasy Best XI.
So... Thank you Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch for all it took to get Sacha Kljestan. He has been an important factor in the Red Bulls' success. Hopefully he'll continue his ways all the way through MLS Cup.