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Top 10 Moments of 2018: Orlando City Acquires Assist Ace Sacha Kljestan

Our No. 6 “moment” of the year is when the Lions brought the stache in from New York.

MLS: Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As we count down to the new year of 2019 – which will be Orlando City SC’s fifth in MLS and Orlando Pride’s fourth in the NWSL — and say goodbye to 2018, it’s time to look back at the club’s 10 best moments of the year.

Orlando City took some big swings in the off-season between the 2017 and 2018 MLS campaigns to try to build a winning lineup. As we know, that didn’t go as planned, but there was a lot of excitement around our No. 6 moment of the year — when Orlando City acquired Sacha Kljestan from the New York Red Bulls on Jan. 3. The club also got $150,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), while giving up Carlos Rivas and Tommy Redding.

Then-Orlando City GM Niki Budalic showed his excitement for the acquisition way back in just the third day of this calendar year.

“We are thrilled to bring Sacha to Orlando,” General Manager Niki Budalic said in a club press release. “His ability to see the field and make the final pass will be huge assets for us. But more than that, he’s a winner. He’s won everywhere he’s gone, and we look forward to that continuing here.”

Even though Kljestan didn’t put up the gaudy assist numbers he had been in New York, the trade seemed to work out best for Orlando. The Red Bulls got some cap relief by unloading Kljestan’s salary, but they parted with a chunk of TAM, got just one appearance out of Redding (which happened to be their wild 4-3 loss to Orlando) and loaned Rivas to a club back in his native Colombia. New York did not pick up the contract options of either Rivas or Redding at the end of the season.

Kljestan earned a 5.5 from The Mane Land staff in his Season in Review grade, which isn’t good enough, considering he occupies a Designated Player slot and costs a lot of money. However, given the team’s disjointed play this season, its rotating cast, and carousel of coaches, it’s difficult to say just what kind of numbers one could realistically expect a pass-first type of player to produce in 2018 and only a few players earned higher composite grades from our staff this past season.

Despite not giving a typical Kljestan-like season, he was consistently one of Orlando’s best performers in the midfield from a statistical standpoint. Kljestan began his tenure as a Lion with a two-game suspension carried over from last year’s playoffs. He then went on to lead all Orlando City players in minutes played, with 2,522, which was his lowest total since his return to MLS in 2015. Sacha’s 30 league appearances was also a personal low for the past four seasons.

Only the suspension and a combination ankle/knee injury sustained on a brutal tackle from behind by Brandon Bye against New England on Aug. 4 prevented him from appearing in every match of the year. And he eventually ended up as the team’s de facto captain with Jonathan Spector shelved most of the season.

The midfielder finished second on the Lions in goals scored, putting six in the back of the net — his second-highest total in an MLS season. His six assists were also good enough for third behind Yoshimar Yotún and Chris Mueller, though it was a massive drop-off from his previous season totals of 14, 20, and 17 with the Red Bulls.

We outlined the rest of his stats in our Season in Review piece:

Kljestan’s 2.5 chances created per game ranked second for Orlando behind only Yotún’s 2.8 and his total pass completion rate for the year was a solid 83.5%. His average pass attempts per match — 49.6 — placed third behind Yoshi and Oriol Rosell. Defensively, he averaged a tackle, 0.3 interceptions, and 0.6 clearances per game. He committed 18 fouls, drawing 30, and finished the season with four yellow cards and no reds.

He was also solid in the U.S. Open Cup. Against Miami United FC, he figured in all three goals in the Lions’ 3-0 road win.

Perhaps his best stretch of the season came in Orlando City’s club record six-game MLS winning streak, when he either scored or assisted on a goal in all six matches from March 31 to May 6.

Sure, there were downsides for Sacha in 2018. He and Justin Meram never jelled together in the early part of the season and the latter eventually returned to Columbus. Kljestan struggled to regain his form when he came back from the injury suffered against New England. But there were also times when he was thinking two steps ahead of his teammates and plays died as a result. Fans grew frustrated with those incomplete passes but it often wasn’t his fault that the movement he expected out of his teammates didn’t come.

Still, Kljestan was one of the more productive players on a bad team. He figured in 12 goals for the offensively challenged Lions. His numbers weren’t as high as expected but they were still among the team’s best. And regardless of how his season didn’t match expectations, his arrival was one of the team’s highlights of 2018.

He spoke quite a bit at the end of the year about building the culture at Orlando City and he seems to want to be part of that. Hopefully he can lead that effort in 2019.

Come back through New Year’s Eve as we count down the remainder of Orlando City’s top 10 moments of 2018.

Previous Top 10 Moments of 2018

10. OCSC hires Oguchi Onyewu as OCB’s new technical director.

9. Orlando City bolsters defense with Carlos Ascues and Shane O’Neill in the summer window.

8. Orlando City B re-launched as a USL League One side for 2019.

7. Orlando Pride finally beat Chicago Red Stars.