Speaking with Sacha Kljestan, two things are clear: He came to New York to win trophies. He loves a Cuban sandwich. Wednesday, just two days before the beginning of MLS season No. 22, which New York Red Bulls open Sunday at newboys Atlanta United FC [7:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1], the league’s 2016 assists leader, MVP finalist and newly minted NYRB captain joined us via phone. We asked the man with best stache since Magnum what qualifies as success in New York/New Jersey this season, what it would feel like to play in his first World Cup at age 32, and his favorite New York City restaurant. Please note, the conversation has been truncated for the sake of our own suboptimal-ness.
MiB: You have taken over the NYRB armband from the newly departed Dax McCarty. There are loads of different types of captains. Shouters. Screamers. Leaders by example. What kind of captain is Sacha Kljestan?
SK: My whole career, I’ve been a lead by example guy. Our manager, Jesse Marsch, has tried to get me to speak up more the last few years. He says that when I talk, people listen. I’ve never been the type to yell at or get after guys. Although getting older, I’ve become more comfortable doing that when the moment needs it. I think sometimes guys need to be yelled at. Other times they need an arm around them and a pat on the back. I’m trying to find that balance.
MiB: What’s a Sacha pre-game speech like? What will you say to the team ahead of the season opener in ATL this weekend?
SK: I don’t plan the speeches. I portray whatever I feel in that moment to the group. This weekend, we expect a ton of people at the game and they’re going to be fired up for their city’s first MLS match. It’s going to be a tough atmosphere. I’ll probably just let the guys know that we’ve been here before, and it’s important to start the season on the right foot.
MiB: You’ve finished top of the Eastern Conference in both of your seasons with NYRB, winning the Supporters Shield in 2015, but you’ve yet to taste MLS Cup glory. In your mind, what qualifies as success for NYRB this season?
SK: To win one trophy this year. At least. I definitely think that’s an accomplishable goal. We could win trophies and not win MLS Cup and that would still be considered a successful season, I think. But, ultimately, the big goal is MLS Cup.
MiB: You have NYC/NJ ties going back to your days playing college soccer at Seton Hall. How special would it be to bring NYRB its first MLS Cup?
SK: It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. It was a major contributing factor for me signing with NYRB. I want to be a champion here. Join a club that had never won an MLS Cup and try to be the first to do it. I said this early on when I spoke to Jesse. I could’ve stayed at Anderlecht the rest of my career, but winning a 34th, 35th, 36th title for them wouldn’t have meant as much to me as winning the first one here. So that’s a big challenge for me. It’s been two years now and we have not accomplished that goal. The pressure starts to mount, but I’m very excited about the opportunity to lift the MLS Cup for New York Red Bulls.
MiB: Last fall, you re-entered the USMNT fold after two and a half years in international football’s wilderness. How did you experience that footballing re-birth from an emotional point of view?
SK: I’d come to a point where I’d accepted that my national team career was probably over. I never thought that I might get to play in my first World Cup at 32. You appreciate things more once you have them and they’re taken away. I realized how important the National Team was and how much it meant to me. I missed out on World Cups in 2010 and 2014, so going to a World Cup would be a pretty amazing part of this ride I’ve been on for the last 11 years. It’d be a great accomplishment, and I’d be very proud.
MiB: Final and most important question: What is your favorite restaurant in New York/New Jersey, and what are you ordering?
SK: A little Cuban cafe in the City, Cafe Habana. It’s been a staple of mine for 12 years. Since I was at Seton Hall. I get the Cuban sandwich and a side of plantains. That’s my go-to meal.