Where were you on Feb. 11, 2009? Chances are you were either posted up in front of your TV, getting ready to watch the USA open the final round of World Cup qualifying, or if you were lucky enough to score a ticket (and determined to brave some intense conditions) then you were making your way to Columbus Crew Stadium to watch the MNT take on Mexico.
Six years ago today, the USA beat Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, setting Bob Bradley's team on the path to an eventual first-place finish in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying final round group. An excellent team performance was punctuated by goals in each half from Michael Bradley as the USA earned a deserved victory against their regional rivals.
In addition to the familiar scoreline, the game was memorable for many other reasons: the eerie thunderstorm before the game, the incredible support from U.S. fans, and the sense of accomplishment at foiling Mexico yet again in the fortress of Crew Stadium.
We asked a few players who were involved that night to reminisce about that memorable night. The first thing Brian Ching mentioned was the weather, not surprising for the native Hawaiian. "I remember it was freezing," said Ching, who put in a workman-like shift up top alongside Landon Donovan. "We had been preparing for a long time, and we came out extremely determined. There is always a lot of hype around a Mexico game. We knew what we needed to do, and we got it done.”
"It was an important win for us, starting us off on the right foot in the final round of qualifying."
Fresh off a hat trick against Sweden, midfielder Sacha Kljestan started in the center of the park for the USA, and he too recalled the special atmosphere that night.
"I was glad to be a part of the team that day. I remember coming out for warm-ups and seeing all our fans behind the goal in red," said Kljestan. "It was great to have so much support. It was a pretty exciting match to play in Columbus, which is kind of like a home stadium for us and a place where we've played some pretty important games."
Kljestan's midfielder partner Michael Bradley put in two goals on the night, the second coming in second-half stoppage time. The shot from distance that squirmed past the hapless Oswaldo Sanchez sealed the win for the USA.
"Both goals that Michael scored that day were great, but the second one was the icing on the cake," said Kljestan. "I remember when that second goal went in celebrating with the rest of the team, realizing we had started off on the right foot and earned all three points."
Heath Pearce talked about the mood surrounding the game. A player with 29 international caps to his credit, Pearce described the game as a unique experience.
"Every international is important, but the whole buildup to USA-Mexico is so much more intense. it just feels different," said Pearce, who played 90 minutes in the victory. "You can feel the aura around the game and in the people you're with who have experienced it before. There are no games that prepare you for the intensity and tradition of a USA-Mexico game."
Pearce also remembered celebrating with teammates and fans after the hard-fought victory.
"The win was something we really earned and we worked hard as a team in sticking to our game plan that day. It was a great feeling to be able to do it in front of that many U.S. fans who were there supporting us and were so positive throughout the game. Sharing the win with them was amazing."
Though the U.S. had played one game before the match against Mexico, the 2-0 win in qualifying really set the tone for a successful year. Beating your biggest rival with the spotlight of the region shining brightly on Columbus, keeping yet another clean sheet at home, and enjoying the moment with the U.S. faithful provided the perfect foundation for a memorable 2009 for the national team. Three hundred and sixty-five days later, we can look back on the first place finish in qualifying and say that the win against Mexico was the catalyst.
ussoccer.com: You’re in Paris getting ready for Anderlecht’s UEFA Champions League game against Paris Saint-Germain. Given your spot in the group table, is this a
“must-win” at this point
Sacha Kljestan: “We have started the Champions League very poorly. We’ve definitely underachieved according to our standards. We have three games left, and we need to take points hopefully in all of them.
“Obviously playing PSG in Paris is a very difficult game. Hopefully we can get out of here with something. That would be ideal. It’s going to be a very tough game. We know they’re a team full of stars and they’ve proven already in the Champions League this year that they’re one of the top teams in the tournament.”
ussoccer.com: Is the opportunity to play in games like this, to play against teams like PSG, one of the reasons for making the move to play in Europe in the first
SK: “One of the reasons that I was very excited and happy to come to Anderlecht was the chance to play in Champions League. These kinds of experiences you can’t buy; you can’t just get these anywhere. These are huge games that you play in and especially playing against a team like PSG where the entire team is international players who start for their international team and who play for teams that maybe we’ll see in Brazil. It’s important playing against these guys and playing at a high level to gain that experience. Hopefully I continue to get better and improve myself while playing against the best in the world.”
ussoccer.com: In the Belgian Jupiler League now you have three goals in three games and seven in league play so far. That’s more than you’ve ever scored in your
career in one season and it’s only three months into the season. What would you say has contributed to your success on the scoring front
SK: “It’s hard to explain. Four of the seven goals have come off set pieces. I’ve been putting myself in good positions to score on set pieces. The others have come from the run of play. I’ve just been putting myself in a good spot and really taking my chances.
“It’s not like I’ve had a ton of opportunities to score this season. I’ve really had maybe 10 and scored on seven of them. It’s just one of those things that happen in soccer. Sometimes when you get in the zone and you get a little bit of luck here and there, and you have some experience to go along with it, things just kind of fall into place. Right now, I have the hot hand and I hope it continues.”
ussoccer.com: Anderlecht is in fourth place right now but only four points off the pace. This early in the season, you’re typically either at the front or near to
it. Are you at where you want to be
SK: “No, we’re chasing right now. It’s not where we want to be. We have to play the hand that we’ve been dealt. This season we sold a lot of our older, experienced players and we have a very young team, so it’s a bit of a rebuilding year.
“However, I still believe with the way the league works in Belgium – we end up with a 10-game playoff at the end of the year, basically exactly like the Hex – the most important thing is that you get into the playoffs in a good position and then anything can happen. So, even though it’s a rebuilding year here for us, I still think that we can challenge for the title.”
ussoccer.com: With it being a rebuilding year with so many veteran players gone and so many younger players in, you’re one of the veteran players they chose to
keep. What does that say to you, and have you taken on more of a leadership role
SK: “I have taken more of a leadership role this season. I think I’m fifth-oldest on the team now and I’ve started every game that I’ve been healthy for this season and been ready for. With all these young guys, you give advice when they need it. Now we had a difficult period where we lost a few games and you have to rely on your experienced players, so trying to be a leader on and off the field will help the team and improve my game. It’s a good challenge early in the season. I’m happy with the way things have gone recently and I hope they continue to get better.”
ussoccer.com: Being in a leadership position is also a growth opportunity for a player. Would you say you have grown in this new role ?
SK: “Yes, for sure. You have to have patience. You have to rely on your experience. I’ve played in big games now. I’ve played quite a few games for the National Team. So, I try to help the young guys as much as I can, but also you learn about yourself, as well. I’ve never been a huge vocal leader, so I try to lead with my mentality, the way I go about things every day in training and the way I play in the games. Being a leader comes in more ways than just talking.”
ussoccer.com: As we add up the pieces that we’ve talked about and you look toward the National Team and particularly the opportunity to make the roster for Brazil
next summer, how do these experiences with leadership, playing in big games, and scoring a lot of goals help you position yourself as the decisions get
SK: “I think every little thing you do is important. Playing in Champions league is important, being a leader on your team is important, scoring goals and helping your team win games is important also. I’m just trying to do everything in my power to put myself in a good position to be one of the guys that Jurgen [Klinsmann] counts on when it comes to Brazil. There’s no perfect formula for anything, but just trying to work as hard as I can, stay humble, keep working and hope that this season ends on a high note and we’re all in Brazil together really challenging for something.”
ussoccer.com: Jurgen has talked about the qualities you bring to the National Team and how in some ways it’s circumstance that has dictated the minutes that you
have gotten with the team. How have you kept your perspective in those times
SK: “At the beginning it was very difficult for me. I was very frustrated. We’ve come to see that Michael [Bradley] and Jermaine [Jones] are the two center midfielders on the team. When they’re healthy, those are the two guys. My position now is to battle the best I can to become that third guy. I think recently in the games I have played I’ve done well. When I came on against Bosnia and helped the team to a victory in the end, and the same against Jamaica when I came on. So, maybe my impact is in that substitute role that can help the team in the middle of the field get the game going and things like that.
“I had a good talk with Jurgen when we were in Kansas City. I feel positive about my performances lately and I hope to continue getting more chances before the World Cup to prove that I’m valuable to the team.”
ussoccer.com: Were there things he told you that you could do
SK: “No, nothing specific. He told me that I’m doing all the right things. I came to Europe to challenge myself and became a leader on my team. I play every game and obviously I’m getting good experiences in Champions League. I think he’s pleased with what I’m doing with my club career right now.”
ussoccer.com: There are only three international fixture dates between now and when the World Cup training camp starts next May. How important are the friendlies
against Scotland and Austria in that light
SK: “It’s very important. Like you said, there’s only a few fixture dates left, so not a lot of games coming up before the World Cup. Every game is an opportunity, every international date is a chance to prove to Jurgen, the staff and the team that you belong and you can make a difference. So, hopefully I’m there with the guys. Obviously playing against two very good European teams in Europe is always a challenge and hopefully we get a good result.”
ussoccer.com: With where you’re at right now with the performances this year, with the progress you’re making with the National Team, are these some of the best
times you’ve had in your career
SK: “Yes, in the past few months, it’s been pretty good. Obviously winning the championships with Anderlecht back-to-back were amazing feats and I felt good being a big part of that, but on a personal level, I think my last few games with the National Team have been a good streak of games. It’s been a good few months with the National Team, so that feels good. I hope that continues and I hope I continue this good run of form with Anderlecht all season long leading up to the summer.”
ussoccer.com: Given your particular history as it relates to mustaches, how excited are you and your fans about it being “Movember”
SK: “I saw somebody tweet at me a while ago saying ‘It’s Movember year-round for Sacha,” which is pretty much true. It makes no difference to me, but maybe when National Team games come up soon, you’ll see a nice mustache on me again.”
A rangy and skillful midfielder, Sacha Kljestan’s effusive personality shines through in his play. His fourth career goal in February 2010 against El Salvador helped put him in the final mix for South Africa. A product of the U.S. youth national teams and a member of both the 2005 U.S. U-20 World Cup team and the 2008 Olympic team, he brings a different element to the expanding pool of U.S. midfielders. After four plus seasons at Chivas USA, he made the jump across the pond to defending Belgian league champion Anderlecht, where in 2011, he became a regular starter.
- Played in every game for the U.S. in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup
- Part of the 30-man preliminary squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup
- His hat trick against Sweden on Jan. 24, 2009, put him in unique company as only the second player to open his national team scoring account with a hat trick. The only other player to accomplish the feat was Aldo “Buff” Donelli, who tallied four goals in a 4-2 victory against Mexico on May 24, 1934
- Moved to Belgian league champion Anderlecht in the summer of 2010 and immediately started in Europa League qualifying matches
Date of Birth
Sep 9, 1985
Huntington Beach, Calif.