Sacha Kljestan has reached the promised land.
The 26-year-old American plays for Belgian club RSC Anderlecht, which qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage on Tuesday.
The U.S. international played the whole game, as Anderlecht scored twice in the last nine minutes to beat Cypriot club AEL Limassol FC in the playoff round. The Belgian club returns to the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2006-07.
Kljestan won’t be watching from the stands on those European nights like a number of his compatriots have in the past. As a regular starter, he should see plenty of action, testing himself in the club soccer’s elite competition. Judging by what he told UEFA.com, it’s likely that he’ll enjoy every minute — regardless of the outcome.
“We’re so happy and ready to see who we’ll be playing,” Kljestan said. “This is a dream for a lot of us –- it’s been a long time for Anderlecht since we’ve been in the group stage. One of the reasons I came to Anderlecht was to play Champions League football so a small dream has been achieved.
“We’ll see after the draw [how well we can do] and then we’ll see how things go in our first couple of games. Obviously, our goal is to continue playing European football in the new year. Certainly, if we make third place and go through to the Europa League, we’ll be happy.”
Kljestan is a product of the modern-day U.S. soccer system, and his story should serve as a template for young American players who want to test themselves against Europe’s best.
The Huntington Beach, Calif., native played youth soccer in Southern California and college soccer at Seton Hall University. He also represented the U.S. at the U-20 level while at Seton Hall. He turned professional after three years at Seton Hall, and Chivas U.S.A. drafted him in 2006.
Kljestan continued on an upward trajectory during his four and a half seasons in Major League Soccer. He was a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award in 2006 and earned All-Star and Best 11 recognition in 2008. All the while, he continued to progress through the national team ranks. He earned his first senior cap in 2007, and played for the U.S. at the Olympics in 2008.
Kljestan’s consistency at MLS level earned him call-ups to the full national team, and he played regularly under former national team head coach Bob Bradley. He was one of the final cuts from the 2010 FIFA World Cup team, but there was some good news to ease the sting: the former Deamon Deacon caught the attention of Anderlecht, one of Belgium’s most successful clubs, and he made the jump to Europe in June 2010.
Some questioned his decision to move to a club in one of Europe’s less prestigious leagues at the time, but Anderlecht’s status as a perrenial Belgian title contender, combined with a real chance to play regularly, makes it look like a great call just over two years later. There are only but so many spots at clubs in Manchester, Milan, Barcelona, Madrid and the like, and the U.S. only has a couple of players that can step on the field for those truly elite clubs.
Kljestan’s story shows that it’s not always about playing in Europe’s most glamorous leagues. Playing at clubs where there is pressure to perform and win — week in and week out — should be the goal for Americans looking to play in Europe. It gives them a chance to compete with Europe’s best, become household names in a few countries, and maybe earn a move to a top team.
What Kljestan must do to impress national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is anyone’s guess, but that’s not the point of this piece … Who am I kidding? Yes it is.
Kljestan is a versatile midfielder and plays regularly in Europe on a team that will embark on a Champions League campaign. He’s also fit and in form by all accounts. If that’s not enough to earn a spot on the U.S. Men’s National Team in 2012, let’s stop the charade that gives players hope that merit will get them onto the national team.
Photo via Twitter/@SachaKljestan