There are plenty of juicy story lines to sink your teeth into for this weekend’s home match against the New York Red Bulls. The return of the divisive and enigmatic Carlos Rivas, as well as local favorite and Orlando’s first-ever Homegrown talent, Tommy Redding is one. Another thing to watch will be the key players joining the Lions’ squad from injury.
What I’ll be most focused on, however, is Sacha Kljestan in his first match against his former side since his blockbuster summer trade. The trade, which also saw Rivas, Redding, and $150,000 in TAM head to New York, was arguably one of the biggest off-season moves in Major League Soccer this summer. The club’s brass recognized the need to fill the vast void left in the midfield following the departure of iconic club talisman Kaká and aimed for the very top with Kljestan. The move signaled ambitious goals for the 2018 campaign, and also signaled an emphasis on “winning now” as opposed to focusing on developing the talented youth within the system.
Unfortunately for supporters, several key players have been unavailable for selection throughout the first month of the season, resulting in a fragmented and incomplete product taking the pitch. Kljestan himself just recently made his debut after serving a two-match suspension, starting and going the distance in a 2-0 loss against New York City FC. Quite frankly, Kljestan wasn’t himself. His passing wasn’t as sharp as it should have been in the final third (though it was 85.7% overall) and he was guilty of conceding possession in his own defensive third, which led to one of NYCFC’s two goals. Looking at his performance logically, however, allows supporters some perspective. This was his first match for his new club, which is full of new faces that are still feeling each other out and learning each other’s playing tendencies. I’m a broken record when I say this, but I’ll continue to trumpet that this squad needs more time.
Despite Kljestan’s lackluster debut in New York, this next match against the other team from the Big Apple is almost certainly one that Kljestan had circled on his calendar following his move. This one is different though. It’s personal. Kljestan will be competing against his former teammates and coaches within the confines of Orlando City Stadium this weekend, and he really, really wants to win.
“I’m excited to play,” Kljestan told reporters after training on Tuesday. “I want to get our first win and even better if it can come against my former team. It will be fun to see the guys again. I spent a few good years there and have some really good relationships with those guys, so you always want to win against your friends and your brothers. I want to win this game very badly.”
Kljestan spent three seasons with the New York Red Bulls, making 106 appearances, scoring 17 goals, and notching 53 assists. He was the league leader in assists over the past two seasons and was instrumental to the Red Bulls’ successful push into the MLS playoffs. He was also an unquestioned leader of the club, eventually becoming the club’s captain. If there’s one opponent on the Orlando City schedule that Kljestan is quite familiar with, it’s the Red Bulls.
“They’re very organized and have a very good style of play that they stick to and don’t deviate from, so we should know what to expect coming in,” Kljestan said. “A lot of pressure, a lot of turnovers, a lot of transition opportunities, so we’ve got to be good with the ball and be good at tracking back when we do turn over the ball, we want to be able to counter fast. And then some very good players. Luis Robles, one of the best keepers in the league, Bradley Wright-Phillips, one of the best strikers in the league. So, at all times, we have to know where Bradley is, really not give him any chances because if he gets any chances he usually buries them.”
Playing against your former teammates can almost certainly translate into a competitive advantage, even if only a minute one. Kljestan has a wealth of knowledge on the playing style and tendencies of some of the Red Bulls’ most dangerous players, most notably star striker Wright-Phillips. My hope is that Kljestan has been using the hours and days preceding the match to familiarize Orlando’s center backs, Amro Tarek and Lamine Sané (Jonathan Spector is not expected to play due to concussion protocol), with the types of runs, shots, and dribbles that Wright-Phillips favors most.
I expect Kljestan to be the loudest Lion on the pitch come Saturday, by far. His tactical direction could prove to be the difference between a high-flying side that’s on fire, and another that’s looking to ignite. Kljestan’s guidance will likely be vital to the Lions’ success.
For Kljestan, one thing is now certain: He’s set for an emotional home debut. A home debut is a special thing for a footballer. It connects the player with the supporters in a personal and intimate way. He’ll finally feel the electricity that “The Wall” brings to home matches. He’ll finally experience the supporters up close and personal, not just from a luxury box. And he’ll finally be granted the opportunity to strut his stuff in front of the home fans, to show them why he’s here and what he’s capable of.
The fact that this home debut comes in the shape of a match against his former side is just the icing on top.
Playing against your former side is an interesting beast. Without delving too deeply into a pointless Sunday league in Tallahassee, FL, I’ve been there. The desire to be triumphant is massive, the motivation unmatched. There’s just a little something extra when you play your old team. I expect Kljestan to feel energized by the occasion, focused on the task at hand, and tenacious in his play. He said it himself: “I want to win this game very badly.”
Truthfully though, I also expect him to play angrily. Kljestan was traded by this club. He was deemed expendable, and was stripped of his captaincy in the process. One can only imagine the emotions that must have accompanied that career-altering move.
Will it propel him to a superior performance, capped off by the Lions’ first win of the season? I think so. At least, I hope so.
Let me know what you think in the comment section below.