By Peter Schwartz
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After his first regular season Major League Soccer match as Red Bulls captain, Sacha Kljestan found himself doing something that hadn’t really been done by former captain Dax McCarty in seasons’ past.
Following Sunday’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over Atlanta, Kljestan delivered a heartfelt message to his teammates in the locker room.
“I stood up in front of the guys and said I was proud of them for the way we came back,” Kljestan told WFAN.com during a phone interview on Wednesday. “It was a tough game in a tough environment and we stuck it out. It’s not a normal thing, but that part came easy for me. I just had to say how I felt.”
A few minutes later, he would have to do it all over again. Head coach Jesse Marsch came in to talk to the team, but before he shared his thoughts he asked Kljestan to speak to the players again, this time with a video camera rolling.
“That was pretty much the exact speech that I had given them about two minutes before the camera came in and then Jesse asked me if I wanted to say something in front of the team just for the camera,” Kljestan reiterated.
Marsch and Kljestan were spot on with their words. There are no style points given out in MLS, so despite the fact that it wasn’t a pretty victory, it still earned the club three points in the standings and a good start to the season.
With a pair of goals six minutes apart in the second half, the Red Bulls magically turned what could have been a demoralizing loss into a dramatic victory. After a 1-6 start to the 2016 season, the Red Bulls were able to get 2017 going with a solid result under difficult circumstances.
“I think that’s one of those wins that can propel you to a good start to the season,” Kljestan said. “I would prefer for us to be the first team that scores. I don’t want us to be this team that has to come back all the time, but it is certainly a good sign, especially when you’re facing a tough team on the road.”
It was far from a masterpiece, but the Red Bulls certainly feel good about themselves heading into Saturday’s 4 p.m. home opener against Colorado.
The Rapids opened their season with a 1-0 win over New England last weekend.
A good start for the Red Bulls will be essential.
“Colorado is a very good defensive team and the type of team that if they score first, they’ll be hard to break down,” Kljestan said. “They’ve won a lot of games 1-0, so this is a game where we have to start well and finish well.”
That’s generally been what the Red Bulls have done in Harrison over the last two years, serving up some impressive home cooking against opponents. In 34 regular season matches at Red Bulls Arena in 2015 and 2016, the Red Bulls went a combined 25-5-4. To say the Red Bulls love to play at home would be an understatement.
“I’m very excited,” Kljestan said. “I think we know when we play at home we have this high level of confidence that we’re going to win a lot of games.”
The Red Bulls have won plenty of games over the last two years, enough to capture back-to-back regular season Eastern Conference titles. But the magic hasn’t continued in the postseason, so after a pair of early exits from the playoffs, the Red Bulls have a little unfinished business to take care of this season.
With several changes to the roster, the Red Bulls are leaning on a combination of veterans and youth to finally have the ingredients for a championship recipe. With players like Derrick Etienne Jr., Sean Davis, and Tyler Adams, youth is being served and a new captain is leading the way.
“I feel good about the team because a lot of the young guys that have been around last year are a year older and are more mature and they’re a lot more ready to contribute,” Kljestan said. “I’m excited about that.”
The veteran midfielder said he was thrilled when he was tabbed as captain in place of McCarty, who was traded to the Chicago Fire. Kljestan had already been a leader in the locker room during his first two years with the Red Bulls, but now he’s the one wearing the armband and understand he has transitioned into a role where he needs to be more vocal.
“It was a really proud moment (when) Jesse asked me to be captain,” Kljestan said. “I’m honored to do it. I hope I represent the fans and the club and my teammates well.”
Even with their dramatic opening win, the Red Bulls still have a lot of work to do. They have plenty of things to clean up and that process begins this week, leading up to what they hope is a good showing in Saturday’s home opener.
Honoring One Of Jersey’s Own
Prior to Saturday’s match, the Red Bulls will honor Colorado and U.S. National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome at age 10 and runs a leadership academy at the New Jersey Center for TS.
The Red Bulls will be donating $5,000 in the New Jersey native’s name to the center.
“That will be great for Tim,” Kljestan said. “He’s very proud of his roots in New Jersey where he started, so I’m happy for him.”
Some of the kids that Howard works with at his academy will join him on the field for the presentation. Following the match, he will be doing a meet and greet with the kids.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @SachaKljestan and @NewYorkRedBulls