Recently, US Mens National Team player and World Cup veteran Sacha Kljestan has been linked to the Philadelphia Union. I am late to the party here, but I thought I would weigh in with my thoughts.
Overall, I am really confused by this interest, and I would prefer to see us pursue other targets. To understand that, we need to look at our midfield.
The Five Man Midfield
Over the past few years, the five man midfield has taken the soccer world by storm. Very few teams dare to play the classic 4-4-2. The Union are among the teams that have shifted to a five man midfield, playing a 4-2-3-1 (more or less) under Jim Curtin.
Now, looking at this formation, the roles of the three central midfielders are critical. In a basic five man midfield, the center of the pitch has a destroyer, a shuttler, and a creator. The destroyer is your typical defensive midfielder. The shuttler is the player who keeps the ball moving. The creator is typically your #10 who links the ball from the midfield to the attack. The names may vary depending on who you talk to, but they are the same general roles.
So let’s look at the Union’s midfield. We have one of the best shuttlers in MLS in Vincent Nogueira. In the creator role, Cristian Maidana had a very successful year when he was healthy. With Amobi gone, we now have a big hole at the destroyer spot.
This is why I am critical of signing Sacha Kljestan. He simply doesn’t fit in our midfield.
Where does Sacha fit?
What we need is a destroyer. Sacha is not a destroyer. While he is at times listed as a defensive midfielder, Sacha has played primarily for Anderlecht and the USMNT as a deep-lying playmaker. In other words, he is a shuttler. Sacha stays deep and recycles the ball and passes it to his creators. We already have Vincent Nogueira in that role.
Now, we could play Sacha out of position. Jurgen Klinsmann certainly does (though he isn’t exactly a good model for tactics). We could play him as a #10 and push Maidana out to the wing. However, Sacha doesn’t have the natural tendencies and flair of a #10. Also, it negates Maidana’s effectiveness. Chaco didn’t truly flourish until Hackworth was fired and Curtin moved him from the wing to the center of the pitch. Playing Sacha as a #10 would negate the skill sets of two players.
We could play him next to Nogueira. Arsenal employs a similar set up. The Gunners have two creative midfielders that switch off between going forward and tracking ball. In theory it works. In reality, it’s the reason Arsenal fans have demanded a defensive mid for years.
Playing Sacha as a destroyer or switching him on and off with Nogueira really weakens and complicates our midfield. Neither player is a true ball-winning midfielder. I, also, doubt that they could cope with the physicality of MLS. Teams like Sporting Kansas City, Houston, and Chicago would bully our midfield around and leave us at a distinct advantage.
Also, this idea goes against Jim Curtin’s mantra. When he took over, a big part of Jim’s philosophy consisted of keeping things simple for the players. They played their roles, and they were not expected to perform any overly complicated tasks. If Sacha plays next to Vincent, it takes a lot of trust and understanding to know who is going forward and who stays back. Our midfield will likely be a disorganized mess in defense in the beginning of the season as they learn each others’ tendencies. I can’t see that sitting well with a manager who wants to build the team from the back.
While Sacha Kljestan is a nice name to pursue, do we really need him? It continues a worrying trend of the Union throwing names against a wall and seeing what sticks. Hackworth clearly had no idea how to fit Cristian Maidana, Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Brian Carroll into the same midfield last year. This inability to solve that conundrum is partially what got him fired. Sacha seems like a return to this trend: signing a big name without a clear plan as to where he fits.
Honestly, we have far bigger needs than Sacha right now. With the money he would be demanding, we could buy ourselves a true defensive midfielder or a big name striker. Heck, we could even use the resources it would cost to move up the allocation ranking to bring in an MLS player at one of those spots.
Is Sacha Kljestan a good player? Yes. Is he a player that would make the Union significantly better? Probably not.