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Sacha Kljestan said nothing wrong

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Because what he said about RBNY was true.

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Soccer- Hunt Lamar U.S. Open - New York Red Bulls vs New York City FC Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

It would seem the New York Red Bulls are trying to start a new tradition: trade away the club captain from the previous season for a questionable return and start a controversy along the way. This tradition started well: Dax McCarty was abruptly sent to Chicago in early 2017, the Fire sent back some money that RBNY spent on...something (your guess is as good as mine); the trade was so sudden that it took even McCarty by surprise, and it was still a talking point when Chicago and the Red Bulls met in the playoffs at the end of the 2017 season.

Gamely, RBNY tried the same trick in 2018: 2017 captain Sacha Kljestan was sent to Orlando in exchange for two young but unfulfilled players. Given their age and relatively modest achievements to date, it’s fair to assume Tommy Redding and Carlos Rivas have their best years ahead of them - certainly, that is what RBNY is hoping. But Sacha Kljestan is the Red Bulls’ all-time leader in career assists - a record he set in just three seasons with the club (the prior record-holder, Thierry Henry, was with the team for four-and-half years) - and has arguably entered a late-career prime as a creative attacking player, after being perceived to have given Anderlecht his best years playing mostly as a deeper-lying midfield engine-room type. So, much like the McCarty trade that preceded it, RBNY has started a new season having traded a known for an unknown, sending away a senior player with a proven role as a high-level contributor and receiving in return a couple of question marks.

So far, so good: this year’s big squad shake-up had many similarities to the one RBNY made last year. But there was one thing missing: controversy. The Kljestan trade was not as sudden as the one featuring McCarty; nor was it as surprising, since the Red Bulls had done something very similar the year before. Also, and perhaps most pertinently, Kljestan didn’t seem all that perturbed by it.

So it seemed that the Red Bulls’ newest tradition was destined to fade away before it really got going. Enter Kljestan himself to see if he could salvage RBNY’s attempt to ignite back-to-back off-season firestorms.

This observer did not hear Kljestan’s interview on Sirius FC on February 7, so is not able to comment on the full context of his statement - but it seems pretty clear he was contrasting Orlando (his current club) with RBNY with regard to their respective squad-building strategies. And insofar as he appears to have been responding to a question about OCSC’s “ambition”, he has broadly been interpreted as effectively saying the Red Bulls have “lacked that”: i.e. lack ambition.

In that very narrow context, he is wrong. The Red Bulls do not lack ambition. Certainly, they do not lack the conventional measure of ambition by which all professional soccer teams ought to be judged: the desire to win matches and trophies. And it is in defending RBNY against that accusation that Sacha Kljestan has successfully rallied Red Bulls fans and engineered the controversy about his departure that he apparently was hoping for:

That is a controversial statement, by the way. If you want to be angry at Sacha for something, be angry at the implicit slight on RBNY supporters - well, be angry if you don’t think he’s substantively right. And he is right that nobody talks about his departure from RBNY the way they did about that of Dax McCarty. This is because his departure was inherently less controversial: it was managed better by the team and received better by the player. Kljestan himself has given the clear impression that he knew he was on the outs at RBNY and made his peace with his situation quickly.

Of course, in saying “I have an idea” about why nobody talks about his departure in the same way as Dax McCarty’s RBNY exit, Kljestan is implying he wasn’t as popular with RBNY fans. This too need not be considered controversial: it’s almost certainly true.

Dax McCarty played for RBNY longer, captained the team for longer, won more trophies as a Red Bull, and was a popular figure with fans for all but maybe his first half-season in Harrison. It might be upsetting to Kljestan to not have won over RBNY fans in the same way McCarty did, but there’s no necessity for it to upset RBNY fans. McCarty achieved more over a longer period than Kljestan did: he should be a more popular player with fans than Kljestan.

It is also true that, for all his assist-making success, Kljestan didn’t quite win over RBNY fans as convincingly as some other senior players because of a perception that he never quite brought his best self to big games.

And his apparent willingness to use the captain’s bully-pulpit to blame teammates for a disappointing result did not sit well with a lot of Red Bulls fans (including this one). After RBNY’s 2-1 loss at home to Toronto FC in the first leg of their 2017 playoff series, Kljestan managed to squeeze a lot of criticism of his fellow Red Bulls into about four minutes of post-game chat with media.

Regarding Sebastian Giovinco’s match-winning free-kick, Kljestan revealed the mistake that would ultimately cost RBNY its place in the playoffs (the team would go on to beat TFC, 1-0, in Toronto, but was eliminated on the away-goals tiebreaker):

We had a gameplan to have [Amir} Murillo drop to the line, and unfortunately he dropped too late. Otherwise, if he’s there, I think he easily heads that ball out - so it’s the little details that annoy me...It wasn’t Luis’ [Robles] job, it was Amir’s job to be there.

And then he threw the rest of his teammates at the same bus he’d put Murillo under. On the subject of RBNY’s response to TFC’s counter-attacking approach to the match:

I feel like I figured it out in the first two minutes of the game, but we need more guys on the field that can figure things out on their own.

Or, you know, maybe the team needed a captain who could guide the team to a shift in tactics and mentality on the fly.

After Kljestan’s latest thoughts on RBNY, it soon became clear that his last acts as team captain (calling out his colleagues in the first leg of the playoff series against TFC; getting sent off for scrapping with Jozy Altidore in the second leg) were not forgotten or forgiven by some fans:

All of which explains why there wasn’t quite the same uproar surrounding Kljestan leaving the Red Bulls as there was when the team booted Dax McCarty out to Chicago. None of which, however, is germane to Kljestan’s thoughts on RBNY’s acquisition of “difference makers” or lack thereof.

Those thoughts again:

Kljestan isn’t really saying the Red Bulls lacked “difference makers” altogether, more that they did not add difference makers to “the pieces we already have”. In other words, the existing RBNY difference makers needed a little more help. And he has a point.

The Red Bulls, of course, are trying to improve themselves with every roster move just like any other team. As such, they are reaching for difference makers just as surely as any other team. But that’s probably not what Kljestan meant. He’s talking about a conventional squad-building strategy: keep your best players, offload the under-performers, bring in better replacements - “add to the pieces we already have”.

Teams lose players for a variety of reasons, and not always by choice. Orlando City, for example, was just strong-armed into parting with Cyle Larin; and the club also had to say goodbye to the star it had built its inaugural MLS squad around - Kaka has retired. But OCSC’s approach to building its team is pretty clearly to try to hang on to its better players, and then bring in proven contributors to further strengthen the squad.

Holdovers from last season’s recruits to Orlando’s cause include veterans Will Johnson, Jonathan Spector, and Dom Dwyer. This year’s intake includes Kljestan, Justin Meram, and Oriol Rosell. Johnson was on Portland Timbers’ MLS-Cup-winning squad in 2015; Meram was in the starting lineup for the losing team in that final, Columbus Crew - and just completed his most conspicuously successful season, with a career-high 13 goals in MLS in 2017; Rosell and Dwyer won MLS Cup with Sporting Kansas City in 2013; Kljestan was the league’s leading assist-maker in 2016 and 2017; Spector is a seasoned pro with a solid record of English Premier League and Championship appearances under his belt prior to coming home to the USA and MLS last year: each in their own way “difference makers”; all presenting excellent credentials that suggest they are capable of performing at a high level in MLS.

The Red Bulls have opted for a different approach, seeking mostly players whose reputations for difference-making are yet to be firmly established - and once those reputations are established, such players become increasingly vulnerable to being traded away by RBNY. Hence Kljestan followed McCarty out the door, and this season’s new recruits are mostly 25-and-under players who are more promising than proven.

Not that RBNY is immune to the more conventional approach to recruiting difference makers, but the team has just made a succession of bad bets recently. Kljestan knows all about the Red Bulls’ efforts to bring in seasoned players who might make an immediate impact, and he’s watched most of them not make much of an impact. Omer Damari, Fredrik Gulbrandsen, Gideon Baah, Muhamed Keita, and Dilly Duka have all left the squad after modest contributions to the team’s fortunes. The big-splash, DP-difference-maker signed in the summer of 2015 - Gonzalo Veron - never rose above the level of spot-starter or super-sub. There have been some successes: Kljestan was one; the likes of Danny Royer, Mike Grella, and Felipe have all been significant to RBNY. But the sort of signings intended to push RBNY’s squad to the summit of its ambitions - MLS Cup - have simply not worked out. The team remains pretty much where it has been since 2010: reliably among the better sides in MLS, sometimes thought to be the best, but never the league’s last team standing.

And the habit of signing the sort of players that sets MLS media buzzing about “ambition” is not really the Red Bull way at the moment. The team wants under-the-radar talents like Kemar Lawrence or homegrown projects like Tyler Adams, and it is increasingly happy to trade away its matured stars - the McCartys and Kljestans - to clubs that feel the need to demonstrate their ambition by signing players fans will recognize as proven performers. And these trades allow RBNY to further indulge its present gluttony for young prospects.

Even this season’s big-money signing - Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra - is joining a squad that has lost most of the senior players who might have challenged him for a start, or at least deepened the talent on the roster: Kljestan, Grella, Keita, and Veron have all been let go. The Red Bulls seem to favor the reboot over mere reinforcement.

So when Kljestan says RBNY hasn’t been “going out and getting the guys that will be difference makers, and add to the pieces we already have” - insofar as he means the team isn’t building its roster the way Orlando has been - he’s right. There’s no reason to quarrel with him about something the Red Bulls have very obviously been doing for the last three seasons; no reason to think he doesn’t understand the objectives of a system he was part of for the last three years. If he framed his comments in a pro-Orlando way, that’s his job now: he’s an Orlando player.

Kljestan is right about RBNY - and that should worry him a lot more than it worries RBNY fans. Since it joined MLS in 2015, Orlando has been about as consistent in its roster-building approach as the Red Bulls have with their own in the same time frame. Both teams have not quite achieved what they wanted to in the last three seasons, but RBNY has a Supporters’ Shield, a US Open Cup final, two regular-season Eastern Conference titles, and two trips to CONCACAF Champions League to show for its efforts. And the team has been to the playoffs every year in that time (and every since 2010, as it happens). Orlando has yet to qualify for the MLS post-season.

OCSC’s methods make for good reviews during the off-season and a solid-looking roster on paper. For all the mis-steps and misfortunes of the last three years, however, RBNY’s methods have delivered the better results on the field. But that is no reason to deny the fact that the Red Bulls prefer the unknown and under-rated to the tried and tested. It is their way - this should not be a debatable point.

So leave Sacha Kljestan be. He knows what the Red Bulls are doing as well as anybody who isn’t Jesse Marsch and team’s coaching staff. And the fact he is right about RBNY will give him little comfort, since he knows it means the team thinks it was right to let him go. He has enjoyed three of the most productive seasons of his career thanks to RalfBall, but he’s allowed to vent a little after being cast aside while seemingly still at his peak.