Sacha Kljestan celebrates his goal while Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles takes the ball out of the net. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
HARRISON, N.J. — For three years, Sacha Kljestan was the heart of the Red Bulls attack and drawing plenty of adulation from the team’s supporters.
Whether the former Red Bulls captain was scoring goals or setting them up, the ball usually went through the playmaking midfielder.
He certainly received his share of cheers from the Red Bull Arena faithful — until Saturday night.
Instead of getting praise after scoring the lone goal of Orlando City SC’s 1-0 victory, he heard boos from the the announced crowd of 15,108.
No problem for the former U.S. international.
“Yeah, fair enough,” he said. “They paid their money to come here and support their team and obviously they weren’t happy that I scored. What I’ll from my standpoint, when I played for the Red Bulls, I loved playing here. I gave everything I had every day to make this a winning club and i enjoyed every moment of it.
“I think some of the fans hold something against me because I missed a couple of penalties in big moments for this club and that’s part of football. That part sucks. It sucks that I missed those big plays and big moments and that I wasn’t able to carry this team to MLS Cup. I just hope they know that I gave everything I had when I played for this club and I loved every minute of it.”
And perhaps scoring a goal against his ex-teammates, his first of the season and 38th of his MLS career.
That occurred in the 73rd minute. Second-half substitute Dom Dwyer trapped the passed to João Moutinho, who fed the one-time Seton Hall University standout on the right side of the penalty area. Kljestan fired a 12-yard shot past goalkeeper Luis Robles.
If there was any personal satisfaction on scoring against the team that traded him away for two middling players in January 2018, Kljestan didn’t show it.
He was just glad Orlando would return home with three points on the road in its first win of the young season.
“The biggest thing for me was that we won,” Kljestan said. “We desperately needed a win and a road win to boost the confidence of our group so that was huge. Obviously, it feels really good when you get a game winning goal … A little bittersweet. I love this place and I love those guys and Chris Armas. The whole group is a great group of guys. I miss them, I love them. So, it’s a little bittersweet. It still feels really good.”
After the final whistle, Kljestan and Armas hugged as the Red Bulls head coach congratulated him.
“Chris is one of the best guys I’ve ever met in soccer, if not the best,” Kljestan said. “He’s the most genuine person I know so any time I get to see him it brings a smile to my face and I think he feels the same about me. So, the mutual respect is at the highest level between Chris and I and it was just nice to share a moment the game. I’m sure I’ll go see him right now.”
Kljestan said the Lions needed the victory “badly.”
“This was a much needed three points but a much-needed performance also,” he added. “As a team we played really well. To be honest, earlier today Nani brought the group together – just the players – and he gave us a good speech about mentality and how we needed to almost grind things out at this point and win ugly.”