Calmer waters await Klestjan in Belgium
AMSTERDAM — The last couple of years have seen some rough seas for new Anderlecht recruit Sacha Kljestan, but the US international reports he has been sailing smooth since his move to the Belgian giants.
The erstwhile Chivas USA ace had been tossed about a good bit before joining the Mauves in June, with plenty of ups and downs in form, team results, US national team success and transfer luck.
Nowadays, though, things could hardly be better for Kljestan. Having happily settled in Brussels and integrated into the biggest club in the country, Kljestan, 24, has also wasted no time in making a field impact.
Seven minutes into his competitive Anderlecht debut on Tuesday night, the California native showed he's learning the transatlantic ropes, burying a half-volley to give his side a 1-0 lead in their Champions League third round qualifying opener against visiting Welsh champions New Saints.
"It was an important start for the team, so I was very excited to get the first goal," Kljestan told MLSsoccer.com. "The coaches have been telling me to get into the box late when the ball is on the right side. It got flicked over to me and just landed on my foot."
The fresh catch is being stationed by manager Ariël Jacobs in the left midfield post vacated by Jelle van Damme, a converted defender. The two-way position carries a lot of responsibility, and Kljestan feels the defensive part of his game has improved enough that he can now handle them all.
"It's a box-to-box position where you gotta get up and down the field," he said. "Teammates have recognized that I work really hard on and off the ball to help the team. If that means defending, it's no problem for me."
All in all, Kljestan seems to finally have the wind fully at his back. Life is headed in his direction now.
"It's actually exceeded my expectations so far," he says of the move abroad. "I wasn't sure how I would adjust and how things would be, but to be honest, I love the club, I love the city—everything on and off the field has been great so far. I'm really enjoying it."
"I finished setting up my apartment and I have some family coming to visit soon. It's a nice area where I live."
He's even been able to sample Belgian's most famous exports, even if not all of them are up his alley. "I'm not much of a beer drinker, but the chocolate and fries are definitely really good," Kljestan said, chuckling.
Of course, the fourth best-known Belgian craft may well be the Anderlecht club. The Constant Vanden Stock trophy case features 30 national crowns, as well as the 1983 UEFA Cup and a pair of the now-defunct European Cup Winners Cups.
The list of former players is both impressive and international, with names like Rob Rensinbrink, Enzo Scifo, Luc Nilis, Jan Koller and Vincent Kompany among those indelibly linked to the Purple & White.
But with all the pedigree and history come expectations, and Anderlecht fans habitually expect much from their boys. Kljestan has accepted the increased pressure and is using prep time on the practice ground as his valve, just as his teammates do.
"It's more demanding every day," he admitted. "We're obviously going to contend for the championship every season, so every game we go out there and play to win."
"It's obviously more pressure than we had at Chivas. It's a little bit different, but we put 100 percent into training everyday to make sure that we're the best."
Though the Anderlecht faithful do ask a lot, Kljestan says they also give freely and that he's off to a great beginning with them.
"I've seen a couple people in the stands carry American flags now, which is cool," he said. "And I've seen quite a few already who have my jersey on, so I've received some good support from the fans."
"They were excited when I scored in the Champions League, and started chanting "USA! USA!". They didn't know much about me when I got here, but they've taken a small liking to me, so I'm excited."
Like most players who sail away from Major League Soccer to test European waters, Kljestan is grateful for his time playing at home, which he says prepared him for this new step up.
As always, Anderlecht have some extremely talented squad members, increasing the level of training for Kljestan. The current side includes playmaker Mbark Boussouffa, Czech Republic backline prodigy Ondřej Mazuch and teen strike sensation Romelu Lukaku.
Giving thanks to 114 league contests with Chivas USA and another 24 with the 'Nats, Kljestan is happy with how he's fit in from a soccer standpoint.
"There's some very talented players, technically and tactically a bit better than MLS, but I think I'm adjusting well," he stated. "I got to play a lot of games every season [in MLS]. I played every game I was available for, I got 30 or 40 games a season. It was good to get that experience under my belt."
"A lot of guys go to Europe and they don't play at all," he added. "They have no game experience. As a young player for four-and-a-half years, I got to play week in and week out. That gave me some experience, then I got some experience with the [US] national team as well."
Next up on the docket is Saturday's Jupiler League season opener against risers Eupen. As often is the case for the Anderlecht, they will bring a vault-cracking mindset to combat the overly defensive stance of an underdog.
"It's going to be a tough match because we play a team that's promoted from the second division," he said. "I think they're going to come in here and play for a point, throw everybody behind the ball. It'll be tough to break down."
The Eupen test seems just another marker for Kljestan to pass, now that his skies are clear, his crew is strong and his bearing true. Having come through the struggles, this adventurer has finally landed at the right place on the map.
"There were some ups and downs," he admitted. "Anderlecht wanted to buy me a year-and-a-half ago and I really wanted to come at that time. But unfortunately, it didn't happen, and then the same with Celtic. I was disappointed with that as well. But I'm glad how everything worked out how it did. I'm here now and it seems like it was mean to be."