Photo by ISIphotos.com
by GIANFRANCO PANIZO
The start of year couldn't have gone much better for Sacha Kljestan.
After being named the 2008 U.S. Soccer Young Male Athlete of the Year award, Kljestan trained with and drew interest from Scottish giants Celtic and then scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 win against Sweden in January at the Home Depot Center. He was riding high and looked poised for a breakout 2009.
Things haven't quite worked out that way.
In the three months since his hat-trick vs. Sweden, Kljestan has lost his starting job with the national team and gotten off to a sluggish start in MLS. He has yet to record a goal or assist for Chivas USA and last week he was benched during a Chivas USA match for what head coach Preki called a lack of sharpness.
So how did Kljestan go from budding national team star to slumping youngster? Following his impressive three goal performance versus Sweden, a short-haired Kljestan started in the center of the field next to Michael Bradley as the United States opened up their final round of World Cup qualifying against Mexico on February 11. Although he did not play poorly, Kljestan, who is known for his offensive creativity, added little offensively and was stronger on the defensive side of the ball in the 2-0 victory.
In his next national team outing, a start at El Salvador on March 28, Kljestan had one of his worst performances in a U.S jersey. In front of the hostile crowd at the Estadio Cuscatlan, Kljestan committed repeated turnovers and failed to create much in the attack. With the U.S. trailing 2-0 late, head coach Bob Bradley decided to replace him in the 71st minute in favor of midfielder Jose Francisco Torres. The U.S team went on to salvage a draw, scoring two goals in the final 15 minutes to level the score.
Three days later, Kljestan found himself starting on the bench when the U.S. team faced Trinidad & Tobago. After having been a regular starter, Kljestan was limited to a six-minute cameo appearance in a match the United States was already winning, 2-0.
Kljestan's struggles with the national team have carried over to the club level. While Chivas USA is off to a great start, Kljestan has yet to score or notch an assist in Chivas' first seven games of the season.
Chivas USA head coach Preki yanked the 23-year-old in the 64th minute of their latest game, a 2-0 win over FC Dallas on Sunday.
"I didn't think he was particularly sharp," Preki told the L.A. Daily News. "It's just locker room stuff. We'll talk about it and see if we can help. It should be a big concern for him – not for me."
So what is wrong with Kljestan? He could be distracted by what will likely be a summer transfer to Europe. Kljestan could also be burned out after a busy past 12 months that have included heavy action with the U.S. national team, the Olympics and his play with Chivas USA.
Whatever it is, Kljestan will need to rebound quickly if he will play a key role in the U.S. national team's busy summer schedule, a schedule he seemed destined to be a major player in back in January, when he was riding sky high and playing his best soccer.
What do you think is the cause of Kljestan's 2009 woes? Is he looking to move out of MLS? Is it just an untimely bad few months? Do you think him cutting his hair cost him to lose his mojo?
Share your thoughts below.