There’s no understating just how disappointing the 2018 season was for Sacha Kljestan.
Going from one of the league’s perennial championship contenders to a club fighting to work its way out of the other side of the spectrum, Kljestan faced a difficult campaign last season.
Kljestan, 33, posted just six goals with six assists in 30 appearances in his first season with the Lions last year, by far his lowest assist total over the last four seasons. Orlando didn’t get to see much of what the former assist king had to offer after acquiring ahead of the 2018 season from the New York Red Bulls, but it was only a small part of what led the Lions to a last place finish in the Eastern Conference.
For Kljestan, he’s obviously ready to move past what happened last season — a season that he called “the hardest, most difficult, most frustrating season of my career” — but not forget it entirely.
“You don’t want to forget about year one, but you really want to push past it and do better this year,” Kljestan said to reporters after Wednesday’s training session. “This year, obviously, is a big year for a lot of us, and of course we want to correct the things that went poorly last year, especially after we had a good start to last season.”
“I think we made a lot of mistakes last year in games that really killed us,” he said. “If we can limit those mistakes then we have a group pf guys that are going to fight in every game and are going to be in every game, and it’s up to us if we can make the difference in both boxes — that’s attacking and that’s defending.”
The Lions are about halfway through preseason camp, players and coaches alike are singing to a positive tune about the state of the team and its hopes for finally fighting into playoff contention this season. Comparing this year’s squad to that of last season, Kljestan says he sees this one being in a much better stop at this point in preseason.
“Without expending on it too much, I think we’re in a very good spot, team camaraderie-wise right now,” he said.
“The mentality and the willingness,” has been one of the biggest changes Kljestan has seen in the new group of players brought in during an offseason of overhaul. “I think the willingness to learn, the willingness to try something new, maybe with a new formation, and a willingness to be uncomfortable, and I think a vulnerability of everybody.
“We’ve been practicing some really good things within the team in the locker room just between the guys that I think are going to pay dividends as the season goes on, but the togetherness of the group and the willingness to learn and be open and share with each other and try to get better as a group, that has been really, really good.”
Kljestan complimented head coach James O’Connor for bringing in a group of players this offseason that have a good mentality, capable of the buy-in and putting up a fight in games.
“We’re about three and a half weeks in now and the level of commitment, of buy-in, the togetherness of the group inside and outside of the locker room is at a very good level,” he said. “It’s been a fun preseason so far. It’s been very hard, but it’s been fun. I think we’re pushing in the right direction, so I think everybody is very optimistic right now, including myself.”
With their season opener against New York City FC at Orlando City Stadium on March 2 inching closer and closer each day, intensity at training is ramping up. The Lions this week hosted the Philadelphia Union in a scrimmage at ChampionsGate, losing 4-1. This weekend, they’ll welcome the very same NYCFC to town when they host them, the New England Revolution, and Minnesota United FC for the Orlando City Invitational.
The Lions will open play against NYCFC at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night at Orlando City Stadium, another good test for the team and opportunity to continue building the togetherness Kljestan talked so much about on Wednesday.
“Like I said, the group has been great,” he said. “It’s a real feeling of togetherness in the locker room, the spirit has been great, it’s exciting to be around. It’s refreshing.”
(Photo by Mike Watters / Orlando Soccer Journal)
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