This year was supposed to have been Sacha Kljestan's breakout year. Instead, he's only been a non-productive hindrance to club and country, says Goal.com's Luis Bueno.
With domestic and international success seemingly within reach, 2009 was supposed to have been Sacha Kljestan's breakout year.
All signs pointed to such a year, as Kljestan's stock in January was sky-high. He had a spot on the U.S. national team locked down, was being pursued by European clubs and even went on a week-long excursion to Glasgow.
A hat-trick against Sweden seemed to be a precursor for things to come. Instead, it's been one of the few bright moments Kljestan can point to in an otherwise disappointing year.
Instead of playing at the highest level, Kljestan can barely find his way in MLS. His starting spot with the U.S. lasted all of two qualifiers and his wretched league performances do not bode well for a return to the Starting XI come June.
Will he still be considered for the Confederations Cup and/or Gold Cup rosters come this summer? Sure, but it won't be for anything he's shown at Chivas USA this season. After all, it's hard for an attacking midfielder to argue for national team inclusion with zero goals and zero assists in six games.
That Chivas USA is first in the Western Conference, tops in MLS in terms of points, with a 16 points on the strength of a 5-1-1 record speaks more to manager Preki's ability to have pieced together some consistent play from a team that, like last season, has been decimated with injury.
Others have stepped in Kljestan's place to carry the load. Eduardo Lillingston, Paulo Nagamura and Atiba Harris have two goals apiece while unheralded youngster Gerson Mayen has a league-high four assists.
Kljestan, meanwhile, has been off target with his shots and set-piece attempts. All told, he has 10 shots, six on goal, in 507 minutes. His low point of the young season came Saturday against FC Dallas. With an 11-on-10 advantage, Chivas USA were still having problems breaking FC Dallas' defense down. Preki took Kljestan out in the 64th minute with the match scoreless. Four minutes later, Harris bagged the game winner as Kljestan watched from the bench.
With his production in the tank, though, Kljestan's teammates still see him as a valuable cog.
"Everybody around here understands how important he is to us," Chivas USA captain Jesse Marsch said. "The better he plays, the better we are as a team. We've just got to keep tweaking things, finding a better combination of forwards up top to kind of combine with Sacha to get him going. I don't think there's really that much concern whether he came out of the game or any of that because we all know how important he is."
When asked why he removed Kljestan so early, Preki said the decision was simple.
"I didn't think he was particularly sharp," he said.
Chivas have done well to overcome Kljestan's lack of production, and the club's system has been nearly flawless this season - the team has allowed just three goals all year. Thus, it's not on the coaching staff or even his teammates to help Kljestan turn things around.
"It's just locker room stuff," Preki said when asked to pinpoint's Kljestan's struggles. "We'll talk about it and see if we can help. It should be a big concern for him - not for me."
With everything set up for him to take the next step in both his domestic and international careers, Kljestan has been mired in this slump. Last summer, he was one of the United States Olympic Team's brightest players in Beijing and had a standout season with Chivas. He had five goals, seven assists, was an MLS All-Star and named to the MLS Best XI despite playing in only 22 games. Kljestan was linked to clubs in the Netherlands and Scotland but Celtic, his hottest pursuer, ultimately passed when MLS' price tag grew too high.
Perhaps, though, it was the possibility of having to raise his play a notch or two that has caused Kljestan to stumble.
"It's still hard for a young guy to have so much pressure," Marsch said. "He's supposed to be this big-time player and he definitely is. He's learning how to deal with that and we're learning how to keep him going.
Like Chivas, the United States national team has done well to succeed without Kljestan's production. Kljestan started games against Mexico and at El Salvador, and it seemed the team found success more readily with Kljestan off the field than with him in the match. Against Mexico, Kljestan left in the 86th minute with a 1-0 lead and Michael Bradley scored the second goal of the game with Kljestan out. El Salvador had a 2-0 lead over the Americans but Franke Hejduk rallied the Americans, also with Kljestan on the bench.
He did not start the United States' last match, a 3-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago. Instead of Kljestan carrying the flag for the youngsters, it was Olympic teammate Jozy Altidore who shined as he collected a hat trick.
With games at Costa Rica and Honduras coming up, the U.S. could use an in-form Kljestan. But the team has plenty of other players to fill the void if Kljestan hasn't figured out his play by June.
Chivas too are in the feeling-out process as the team is winning in spite of Kljestan rather than because of him.
"I don't think it's just Sacha or just the players around him," Marsch said. "We're still kind of developing as a team and the best part is as we're doing that, we're still winning games."
Luis Bueno is Goal.com's Mexico editor and has covered Chivas USA since 2005.