Postcard from Europe: Kljestan relishing Europe
AMSTERDAM – It'll take a lot more than a sudden title deficit, an unceremonious Europa League knockout ouster and a handful of games on the bench to dampen the spirits of Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan.
Even moments off completing the most miserable week of his "rookie" Mauves season, the 25-year-old Southern California native seems to have maintained his sunny attitude in the Low Lands, which are often rather wet and gray in February.
Kljestan didn't appear in the second leg loss at Ajax that ended Anderlecht's European run for the campaign last week, but he did enjoy five starts in Champions League qualifying and the Europa League.
In fact, his first goal for the club came seven minutes into his first game in Europe, a 3-1 Champions League qualifying win over Welsh side The New Saints in August. He knew to expect regular trips through Europe with Anderlecht.
"One of the major reasons [for signing here] is I wanted to play European football every season," Kljestan told MLSsoccer.com in the Amsterdam following last week's 3-0 loss to Ajax. "With the disappointment now, we turn our focus to the league and making the Champions League for next season."
Having led the Jupiler League for a few months, Anderlecht slipped off the top on goal differential by losing a 2-0 shocker at Westerlo in between the Ajax defeats.
In the span of eight days, they were outscored 7-0, ousted from Europe and kicked off the Belgian throne. However, Kljestan knows the team has far more in the locker than they are showing at the moment.
"We had a really good run for a long time, where we didn't give up a goal for eight games, didn't lose for 15-16," he said. "It's tough playing a team like Ajax — they really broke us down. We didn't play well in either of the games, and last week at Westerlo was a big letdown for everybody."
With leaders Genk set to visit on Friday, the American believes the team needs to get back to asserting themselves offensively early and often.
"Nobody is stepping up and playing aggressively," Kljestan said. "Against Westerlo, they dominated us, they wanted it more. I think we need to be the team that takes control of the game and beats up on them early if we can.
"Maybe it's just been a bad week," he said with a shrug. "I hope we step it up on Friday."
Should Kljestan get the nod against Genk, he will make his first consecutive league starts since December. In all, he has started 11 of 27 Jupiler contests for Anderlecht, with a handful of sub outings.
It's not a bad start for a foreigner on the biggest club in Belgium, but this sort of partial inactivity is new to the former Chivas USA ace.
"It's tough to deal with," admitted Kljestan. "I played four-and-a-half years and I think I started every game but one in MLS. It takes some adjustment, but I think I have a good mentality. I fight for my place every week, and whether I'm in the lineup or not, I support my teammates. I think my coaches and teammates recognize that."
True to form, Kljestan again shows he can pick out the silver lining like a back-post runner.
"We have a healthy competition in training for selection every week," he said. "I think it's making me a better player – but obviously, I want to be on the field to help my team the most.
"Every day in training, I have to test myself a little more and I think I've become a better 90-minute player in all aspects," he added. "In MLS, I played as more of an attacking midfielder. Here, I've played as more of a defensive midfielder, so that part of my game has improved. At the end of the year, I'll be able to say that my game has become more well-rounded."
The same can be said for his worldliness — and his life. Girlfriend Jamie Lee Darley recently did an exclusive photo shoot for Belgian Elle magazine, he happily has easy access to Belgian chocolate and he's enjoying his European adventure to the fullest.
"I love Brussels," Kljestan said. "People in the city have been great, I really enjoy it. I've found some nice restaurants and it's home to me now. It's also close to Paris and London, so we've made a few nice little trips. It's nice to be able to explore Europe."
Even though he's busy exploring Europe, Kljestan assures that he has not forgotten about home. Through all the exciting travels, he never misses a chance to keep tabs on the Goats.
"I follow everything in MLS," he said. "It's still a league that helped me grow and a league I followed since '96. I know what's going on and I always talk with a couple guys from Chivas USA and around the league."