Sacha Kljestan (left) battles Jordan Harvey for the ball. (Adam Hunger/USA Today Photos)
By Michael Lewis
Front Row Soccer Editor
HARRISON, N.J. — It ceertainly was far from the best way to kick off a season.
Sacha Kljestan ended last season by missing a penalty kick in a playoff game that helped end the Red Bulls’ playoff hopes against a Canadian club at Red Bull Arena.
The Red Bulls captain began the year in similar fashion, having his attempt blocked as the Red Bulls were forced to settle for a 1-1 home draw against yet another Canadian side, the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Goalkeeper David Ousted saved Kljestan’s penalty in the 47th minute of the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series, a vital stop that denied the veteran midfielder and the Red Bulls a precious goal.
“I’m not lacking in confidence right now,” he said. “I’m just lacking in execution tonight.”
As he did on Nov. 6 when Montreal Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush saved his first-half penalty kick in what turned into a 2-1 defeat and elimination from the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Wednesday night’s miss wasn’t as devastating because the Red Bulls have enough game in the series — the second leg is in Vancouver March 2 — but it was bad enough because every goal counts in an aggregate goals series, especially when away goals are counted as double.
Let’s set the scene:
The Whitecaps held a 1-0 lead when Christian Dean fouled Daniel Royer on Kljestan’s corner kick as Mexican referee Cesar Ramos pointed to the penalty spot.
Kljestan, who converted six of eight attempts the last two years, decided to place his try down the middle. Ousted dived to the left but still managed to kick the ball away. Bradley Wright-Phillips powered the rebound into the stands.
Kljestan said that he has attempted many penalties down the middle.
“This is the first one I’ve missed when I’ve gone down the middle,” he said. “So it’s disappointing, yeah. I feel bad.”
Ousted, on the other hand, felt pretty good.
“Obviously you are aware that you had them here,” he said. “It’s a possibility that you have to make another save. I think it’s good preparation and that little bit of luck that you need to save PKs.”
Ousted just did his homework.
“I study those things,” he said. “I looked at what Sacha does and how he’s good at sometimes to get the keeper to overcommit to those penalties. Wait as long as possible. Stuck out a leg and luckily I got there.”
Actually, Ousted been there and done that before twice at RBA, stopping Wright-Phillips on penalties twice in a game, a 2-1 Vancouver win June 20, 2015.
“He should not be allowed to be in this stadium,” BWP said Wednesday night.
Ousted and the Whitecaps, incidentally, are scheduled to return to RBA on Oct. 7.
Wright-Phillips, who used to take Red Bulls’ penalties before he missed several in 2015, has walked in Kljestan’s soccer boots, so to speak. So he would like to give his teammate one more try.
“Sacha’s had a good record since the time I missed two against the same dude,” he said. “Even the next one I want to take because they gave me the opportunity. He’s a great penalty taker. I see him in training all the time. The keeper’s done well. He’s brave enough to go up. He went up and took the ball first. He took it and tried to get a goal and it didn’t work out. He’s our captain and I expect him to take the next one.”
But what if Kljestan misses the next one? Would the two-time Major League Soccer scoring champion be willing to assume the role of the Red Bulls’ penalty-kick taker this season?
“I just spoke to him in the shower,” Wright-Phillips said. “I would like for him to have one more try. I would because when I first got here I didn’t miss for six or seven. They feel so easy when you’re scoring but when it gets saved, the goal seems small. I want him to get over that little hurdle that’s in front of him and I think he’ll be all right.”