The last time Orlando City shared a pitch with Sacha Kljestan, things did not end well. The midfielder frustrated the Lions like he did seemingly every time he suited up for the New York Red Bulls against Orlando City. Kljestan has scored one goal and bagged four assists in six career games against Orlando and in August it seemed to go a step further. The mustachioed maestro had a scuffle with Richie Laryea and Cristian Higuita in which the Colombian was later fined for contact with Kljestan’s neck. Later on in the match, Kaká visibly called Sacha a crybaby, complete with pantomime.
In the end, the Lions lost 3-1, the Brazilian legend was sent off after a strange encounter with Aurélien Collin, and Kljestan once again came out on top. It was the latest bad memory in a string of negative encounters with Sacha. Naturally, there were mixed emotions from City fans when reports surfaced that the Lions were acquiring the playmaker from the Red Bulls.
And now, almost a full week into preseason training camp, there might be an even weirder notion floating around Orlando beyond Sacha Kljestan playing in purple. He’s actually making a strong case to represent Orlando as its captain this season.
It wouldn’t be a new role for the 32-year-old. When Dax McCarty was sent to Chicago in a shocking trade last off-season, it was Sacha that picked up the captain’s band and led the Red Bulls to the Eastern Conference semifinals. While there have been several notable scuffles in Kljestan’s career, his attitude and intensity is something that the Lions have been looking for. And it seems that the coaching staff has put its faith in the new attacking midfielder.
It started even before the team reconvened for practice on Monday. Kljestan and Yoshimar Yotún were selected to represent Orlando City for the league’s media day in Los Angeles, not fan favorite forward Dom Dwyer or 2017’s emotional leaders Jonathan Spector or Joe Bendik. After training camp officially kicked off, Kljestan continued to impress in front of the cameras and on the pitch, showing off his leadership qualities.
“I was asked to help [Red Bulls Head Coach Jesse Marsch] lead that team as well,” Sacha said when comparing the Lions’ current turnover to when he joined New York in 2015. With the Red Bulls beginning their youth movement, Kljestan was asked to help Matt Miazga and Sean Davis take the next step in their careers. “I see similarities between my first year in New York and right now and I think it’s good to draw from those experiences.”
The midfielder will have some competition for the armband with Spector and Bendik having already taken on the captain’s mantle last season. Both players were rocks for the Lions emotionally and will continue to be cornerstones for City this season. But for Kljestan it’s almost second nature.
“[The coaching staff] hasn’t spoken to me about [mentoring young players],” Kljestan said. “It’s just something that I do naturally. I don’t think [Head Coach Jason Kreis] needs to tell me that I need to help out the young guys, it’s just the thing I like to do.”
With the infusion of youth in Orlando’s midfield, Kljestan will be an asset in helping those players improve not just on the field but off. Developing a new mentality around the club is just as important to the club’s growth. Sacha brings that in spades and spoke at length about making sure that his teammates are bringing both complete focus and the highest level of effort to training every day. Kljestan has embodied professionalism and a dedicated, winning attitude this week, which is exactly what Kreis and the front office have been looking for.
It may be an odd sight to see a former foe with the band on, but that could be the best course of action for Orlando City. And just months after a public dispute with Kaká, Sacha Kljestan could be his successor as captain.