Sacha Kljestan has had two great seasons for the New York Red Bulls - and the second one isn't over yet.
In his first year with RBNY, he helped the team to the 2015 Supporters' Shield, while adapting to a new role. Kljestan arrived at the Red Bulls reputed to be a deep-lying midfielder with playmaking tendencies and the bite to shield the defense if required. His skillset was deployed higher up the field than expected, as he settled into what is nominally the creative attacking #10 spot in RBNY's tactical plan (which doesn't really have a traditional #10 spot, but Kljestan plays as close to it as RalfBall will allow and he is as effective as any player working to the more orthodox understanding of the position).
Kljestan's role on the field puts him close to goal and close to the scoring of goals. He plays a mostly central position, behind RBNY's all-time top scorer and flanked by two wingers also charged with getting into the box. Kljestan's job is largely distribution in the final third: get the ball to the guy who will put it in the net. And he takes almost all the team's set pieces - including penalties - which adds further to his importance as a distributor and goal-maker.
All of that distribution work makes Kljestan a high-level assist-man. When the Red Bulls score a goal, there is a high chance he had role in moving the ball toward its destination. In 2015, Kljestan tied RBNY's all-time single-season record for assists in league games: 14. In 2016, he has been even more effective, and tied RBNY's all-time single-season record for assists in all competitions with his league assists alone: 19. Impressive.
More impressive, MLS belatedly added an assist to Kljestan's 2016 total, formally crediting him with a part in Alex Muyl's goal against Philadelphia Union in RBNY's last game of the regular season. This boosted Kljestan's assists total for the 2016 MLS season to 20, setting two new single-season club records (for assists in the league and in all competitions), and making him the first player since Carlos Valderrama to crack 20 assists in a single MLS regular season.
It is a remarkable achievement by a player who has been instrumental in RBNY's remarkably successful transition to RalfBall. But there is one problem: Kljestan's 20th assist was not an assist at all.
The making of the goal was, yes, Dax McCarty's smart back heel and Kljestan's pass across the top of the six-yard box. But the pass was angled at the defense - and clattered off Richie Marquez. The touch off Marquez is not incidental: it changes the trajectory of the ball, takes it out of reach of Fabinho and lands Muyl a shot on goal without defensive pressure.
It is a goal born of the philosophy guiding Red Bull Global Soccer: controlled chaos - make things happen in attacking positions and very often they will be things advantageous to the team doing the attacking. But it is not an assist by the traditional measure, because the attacking team's possession was interrupted by the defense. Once Kljestan decides to cannon the ball into Marquez, he is no longer in control of the outcome of the pass. Indeed, it is no longer Kljestan's pass: it is a deflection off Marquez. A deliberate deflection: you can see the defender reflexively adjust his body position to block the ball.
Did Kljestan hope to engineer a scoring opportunity? Of course, he did. He isn't hanging out on the edge of the six-yard box for any other reason. And the indirect, unpredictable route to goal is entirely in keeping with the Red Bulls' freewheeling, aggressive style. But Marquez equally hoped his block would not carry the ball to an entirely more dangerous position than Kljestan originally targeted. The pass was made to a part of the field covered by a defender; the defender moves it along to a part of the field without such coverage, and Alex Muyl duly takes advantage.
The last and decisive touch that puts the ball in front of Muyl comes from a Union player, not a Red Bull. That is why the stat-keepers did not originally award Kljestan an assist for the play. And it was the correct decision.
Kljestan is no less a player and no less significant in the build-up to the goal if he does not get an assist for his role in that goal being scored. But his record is diminished for owing more to sentiment than stat-keeping standards. He didn't need 20 assists this season for it to be considered a great year for him and his team. And he certainly doesn't need the charity of MLS to elevate his reputation or his statistical records.