The sun took forever setting over Sacha Kljestan’s last Open Cup game.
It loitered there on the horizon, bathing the sky melancholy purples and pink, as if interested, somehow, in the outcome. Kljestan spent last season in the spaces between aging player and whatever comes next, but he was captain in that 2022 Round of 32 game against underdog sensations Cal United Strikers.
On that humble field, where his kids play youth soccer and near his hometown in Orange County, the 36-year-old was tasked with guiding a squad of LA Galaxy’s academy kids past a potential upset.
“I love the Open Cup. It goes back to all those little corners of the game back before there even were professional leagues,” Kljestan said back in 2017 when, as captain of the New York Red Bulls, he finished with silver – so close to the historic trophy he could reach out and touch it.
“It means something to every player who ever played in it,” added Kljestan. “It means something in this country.”
He was nearly two decades older than most of his teammates and opponents on that May day last year. His MLS pros from Carson were down a goal after 20 minutes against a third-division side who toil away, largely in obscurity, with dreams of big tomorrows. And when the Galaxy earned a penalty on the stroke of halftime, it was Kljestan who grabbed the ball.
Part-teacher and coach by then, the winds of a career autumn gathering around him, he saw an opportunity. Dejan Joveljić, 21 at the time and making his first start for the Galaxy, approached, eager and full of respect. Kljestan handed him the ball.
“Dejan’s father had just come to visit him from Europe,” Kljestan, the designated penalty taker, remembered with a half smile. “And he’d been bugging me all the time in training to take one, so I was happy to let him have it.”
Kljestan gets it. His father, Slavko, came to the U.S. from war-torn Bosnia. He crossed the Canadian border in the trunk of a car and hitchhiked to Southern California. Before that he was a professional player with Željezničar Sarajevo. It’s because of him that Sacha grew up around the game and the spells it can cast, learning the value, and possibility, of making something from nothing.
Joveljić scored from the spot twice that day and he spent the rest of the season looking like a young man with a huge future, perhaps even in Europe’s glamor leagues. Kljestan, with his own time in Europe behind him and his status as an MLS legend firmly established, faded into the background of a 3-2 win.
Injuries kept him from taking part in the Round of 16 win against crosstown MLS rivals LAFC and a shock Quarterfinal loss – the kind Kljestan knows only the Open Cup can offer – against second-division strivers and eventual runners-up Sacramento Republic.
“I’m so sad you’re not a few years younger…so we could share the field together,” said Joveljić on Twitter last week, the day Kljestan announced his retirement from the game after 16 years as a pro.
Calling it a Day
Tributes poured in for this special player, an American original with a whisper-soft touch. He possessed a rare vision and guile from the very beginning, all the way back to the early 2000s when he played three seasons for Seton Hall in the run-run-run helter-skelter of the college game.
“Elegance,” said Michael Lewis, when asked what made Kljestan special. The veteran soccer writer, who’s watched over the American game and its players for the last fifty years, remembers the first time he saw Kljestan play in Orange, New Jersey. “It wasn’t something you saw from American-born players that often, especially in college.”
Someone else saw that quiet majesty too. Saw it up even closer. Kljestan’s college coach, Manny Schellscheidt, was a former U.S. national team coach and one of those sage heads from the old days. The boots were heavier back when he played, the lore thicker. The tackles harder.
Schellscheidt, now 81, never stopped having an influence on his former midfield creator. Kljestan checks in every few weeks so the two can chat about the game they love. “I wish we could have played together,” said Schellscheidt, who won an Open Cup with Elizabeth SC of New Jersey in 1970 and 1972. “He could have played on any team and on any field in this country at any time. I’m sure of that.”
The affection, and the respect, was mutual. “Manny would jump out on the field sometimes and you could see how crafty he was,” said Kljestan, who cherishes being invited out, as a skinny young college kid, to the Boy’s Club in Union, New Jersey where the old timers still played under dim lights. “Not everyone was invited to those games, only a select few. I wish we could have played together for real.”
And the way he felt about the Open Cup was clear from his first moments in Major League Soccer. Kljestan hated it when the coaching staff at his first MLS club, Chivas USA, wouldn't take the historic tournament seriously. “It drove me nuts when we’d get bounced early every year.”
Chivas USA to the Champions League
From Chivas USA, which closed operations in 2014 to live on mostly as a cautionary tale or a punchline, Kljestan stepped up next to the bright lights of the Champions League. He was beloved at Belgian giants Anderlecht, where he won three titles in four seasons between 2010 and 2015. The fans there, the ones who know, still smile when you mention his name.When the Polish legend Peter Nowak, one of MLS’ best-ever players and a two-time Open Cup champion with Chicago Fire, was asked to coach Team USA at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he insisted on Kljestan in the heart of his midfield. An endangered species, a rare breed, Kljestan was a pure playmaker. And the ball loved him like it has loved few American-born players.
His 52 caps are far too few. He was never selected for a World Cup squad. His talent, and his commitment to playing the game the right way, made him dangerous. Risky may be the better word. What did we miss with each game Kljestan spent on the bench, his shirt unmussed?
We can’t know, but we can guess.
The closest he ever came to winning our Open Cup, the tournament that runs like an artery out from the heart of American soccer, was in 2017. That New York Red Bulls team was special. And Kljestan, in his early 30s, was in his prime. He didn’t chase the game, he tamed it.
Kljestan, that year, played chess while others pushed around checkers.
Jesse Marsch, now in charge of Leeds United in the English Premier League and an Open Cup winner in his playing days, had striker extraordinaire Bradley Wright-Phillips in the squad And a teenage Tyler Adams and Aaron Long too. Captain Kljestan, in his unhurried way, pulled the strings as schemer.
So Close & So Special in 2017
“I loved playing with that team. It was a special group,” said Kljestan, who, walking past the trophy before the Final in Kansas City, wore a look of longing and hunger. “I carry it with me still, that loss.”
He wanted the gold that his old college coach had won decades earlier, and that Joveljić, his young protege, one day might. There’s something unfair about Kljestan, who would reach the Semifinals again two years later with Orlando City, not lifting the Open Cup trophy. His talent and commitment – and his affection for what our tournament stands for – seemed to demand it.
While Kljestan may not have gotten all the things he wanted in the game, he gave us more than we deserved.
He titled his retirement announcement Thank you, Soccer. It’s the high class we’ve come to expect from one of our underrated greats. From one of those who, when they leave, leave us poorer. American soccer became a less bright place when the sun finally set on this special career.
So, thank you Sacha Kljestan. Sincerely. For it all.