For some fans, this has been a rough start to the season, with two home matches and just one point to show for them. Making it worse is the emotional connection of losing to Minnesota United on Saturday that has some seemingly throwing in the towel. I wrote last week on having some patience as the Lions need some time for injuries to heal, players to jell, and the suspension of Sacha Kljestan to finish.
To catch everyone up to speed, Kljestan ended his year with the New York Red Bulls in tumultuous fashion. During halftime in the last match of the season, Kljestan and Jozy Altidore got into a brawl that ended with Kljestan mistreating the stadium security guard, according to an MLS investigation. Due to the security guard information, his suspension was upped to two matches to be served at the beginning of the 2018 season.
Orlando City’s move for MLS’ leader in assists over the past two years was a gigantic one for the organization, which had been lacking the maestro abilities of a player like Kljestan. However, fans unfortunately have not been able to see how that move would really work. Instead, we’ve seen Yoshimar Yotún and Richie Laryea playing in the No. 10 role to mixed results at best.
This Saturday, fans will finally get a taste of what Sacha brings to the table. In the Lions’ first away match against New York City FC, I certainly expect Kljestan to start at the top of the diamond — assuming Kreis sticks with the formation — in a play-making role underneath the two forwards.
But what will Kljestan bring for a team looking for its first win of 2018? The easy answer is a lot. But I’ll start with experience. Right now, the team is playing with four or five players who have just started their MLS or professional careers. Kljestan has some of the best background of any MLS player with five years with Belgian side Anderlecht, winning three titles and playing in 14 UEFA Champions League matches. He is also a consistent face in the U.S. national team system and has eight years of MLS play.
That’s not an ordinary resumé, especially not for an Orlando City player. Kljestan will be able to control the game physically, technically, and as a leader for the many inexperienced players on the pitch. He understands the game and won't let things get to him the way Laryea did at times, which can simply be summed up as a young player doing things young players do.
Not to mention his reputation as a tough physical player, one often hated by other supporters, will put some bite back into that position where Laryea and Yotún are definitely not physically imposing. Over six feet tall, he’ll be a much more physical force in that position against defensive midfielders than the replacements.
And of course there’s the technical ability of Kljestan. According to the Audi Player Index, an indicator of total performance, Sacha ranked 10th among midfielders (16th overall). There’s no doubt that Kljestan will bring a level of technical ability that no one else in the attack can match other than maybe Justin Meram.
So now you have this experienced No. 10 who can be a leader on the pitch, is physically imposing, and has the technical ability to control the game at times to help players settle back into their natural positions. What does that mean for everyone else?
Firstly, Meram finally doesn't have to do it all up top. At times, he’s definitely looked like he’s overplaying due to the lack of talent/experience in the attack. He’ll be able to settle in and let Kljestan feed him the ball rather than trying to hunt all over the attacking third, over-dribbling.
Yoshi can now stay out wide or even potentially move to the bottom of the diamond where he’s more comfortable and plays for Peru. Without Uri Rosell, I would actually prefer that as Cam Lindley is still very young and you can see the defensive liabilities that come with a rookie who was an attacking midfielder in college.
Not to be a broken record, but don’t expect some massive overnight change here. The club is still without its other two designated players in Dom Dwyer and Josue Colmán, who notably both play in the attack. The Lions lost Stefano Pinho to an ankle injury and will still be searching for a starting left midfielder next week depending on what Kreis wants to do with Yoshi (I expect him to be on the left and Lindley to stay).
You will see a different Orlando City attack this week and it will be because of Kljestan. But against what most expect to be a top-three team in the east, NYCFC will not be an easy opponent.
But the good news is that he will finally be on the pitch. And, in time, he’ll start doling out those assists to Meram, Mueller, and eventually Dwyer, and I can’t wait to watch.