After two-and-a-half years of not playing for the U.S. men’s national soccer team, Sacha Kljestan wasn’t sitting by the phone waiting for coach Jurgen Klinsmann to call.
A onetime mainstay on the national team, Kljestan played in 46 games and scored four goals between 2007 and 2014 — not including his time with the Under-23 team at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. But then that stopped, and his phone never rang again.
So Kljestan put all of his attention toward his day job as the New York Red Bulls’ central midfielder, leading the team to the best record in Major League Soccer in 2015, and then pacing the league in assists this season en route to being named a finalist for the MVP award (the winner will be announced Dec. 6).
And so now, on Friday, Kljestan could once again be a key fixture for the national team when it faces Mexico in the opening game of “The Hex,” which is the final round of FIFA World Cup qualifying for the CONCACAF region. The teams kick off at 7 p.m. ET in Columbus, Ohio.
The surprise return to the national team picture came in late August when Kljestan and his wife, model Jamie Lee Darley, were sitting in their kitchen and the phone rang.
“It was a big moment,” the 31-year-old Kljestan recalled. “Sitting with my wife at the counter and just a little bit in disbelief. But obviously very excited. I thought someone was messing with me.”
He didn’t waste the chance.
Within five minutes of entering a World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Sept. 2 as a substitute, he set up Christian Pulisic for a goal that gave the U.S. team a 4-0 lead. Then he scored a goal of his own and assisted on another Pulisic goal that finished off a 6-0 rout.
Four days later, he made his first start for Team USA since March 5, 2014. He scored again, this time the first goal in a 4-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in another World Cup qualifier.
Kljestan was a late roster addition to Team USA in August, not among Klinsmann’s initial list of players. But when defender John Brooks was subsequently ruled out with a back injury, Kljestan again got the call.
“Sacha was an afterthought,” former U.S. midfielder turned television analyst Brian Dunseth said. “He wouldn’t have been called in if not for John Brooks’ back injury. But (Kljestan) prepared for the opportunity.
“He and Pulisic looked at each other and said ‘let’s do something special,’ and neither have looked back since.”
Although Kljestan thrived when given the opportunity, he’ll still have to earn his spot on the field. Regular midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones were both absent for the St. Vincent game but have since returned.
“Every coach from Steve Sampson to Bruce Arena to Bob Bradley to Jurgen has their favorites, guys they ‘go to war’ with,” said Dunseth, captain of Team USA at the 2000 Olympic Games, when it achieved its best showing of fourth place. “One of the big things through Jurgen’s tenure is the questions about how he cultivates his roster, his decision to stick by certain players, not to have a deeper look at others.”
Also clouding Kljestan’s playing time is his nose. During Sunday’s MLS playoff game between the Red Bulls and Montreal, Kljestan collided with Impact midfielder Marco Donadel. Blood gushed from Kljestan’s nose, he was kept out of the game for more than 10 minutes, and when he returned both nostrils were plugged with cotton, hampering his breathing.
On Wednesday, Kljestan revealed that he suffered a couple of “clean little breaks” in his nose, although he has been cleared to play against Mexico, though with headgear.
Regardless, his Red Bulls teammates feel his return to the national team was about time for Kljestan, who began his career at MLS’ Chivas USA, moved to Belgian club Anderlecht for five seasons and came back to the United States and MLS in January 2015.
“It’s fantastic,” fellow Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty said about Kljestan’s restoration to the national team. “It’s deserved. He’s had a great season. I think everyone can see he’s one of the best midfielders in the national team pool. That’s not a surprise to anyone.”
Dunseth, too, wonders what kept Kljestan off the national team for more than two years, but is not questioning his return.
“Nothing has changed. He’s a little bit tighter with the nuts and bolts of how he does things,” Dunseth said. “But he’s the same kid and the same talent. Nothing has changed throughout his career, whether he took the path less traveled in Belgium or coming back in New York.”
Kljestan hasn’t questioned, at least publicly, why he hadn’t been called in to Team USA for nearly 30 months. And with Mexico looming, he’s not about to start now.
“Obviously, I’m very excited to get in with the national team. USA vs. Mexico is the biggest game for us Americans so I’m really looking forward to that match,” Kljestan said. “I was part of it a couple of times before, once in Columbus in ’09 and I’m really looking forward to that.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.