Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Or maybe, “What’s your major?” Sometimes, it can be tough be explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? We asked New York Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan to explain his job without any cliches.
Let’s try to break it down in the simplest terms first. There’s a few different types of midfielders. I’m currently what you would call an attacking midfielder, which means my job is to be creative, distribute the ball, make that killer pass and set up goals. It’s very similar to a point guard in the NBA.
If you’re watching the Clippers, Chris Paul is the guy who sets the tempo and creates the game. That’s my role on the soccer pitch. The difference is that Chris is dealing with 9 other moving pieces on the chessboard. I’m dealing with 21 other pieces.
I think the average fan, especially those who are just getting into soccer, looks at YouTube clips of Ronaldo or Messi taking on defenders one-on-one and they think that’s a big part of what we do. But there’s only a few guys in the entire world that can dribble through defenders like that. For the rest of us mortals, we have to rely on our brain to excel. We have to let the ball do most of the work for us.
If I had to describe it in one sentence, my job is to outsmart the other team. I have to see the game one or two steps ahead.
Here’s an example: Let’s say we are defending. The other team has the ball out on the wing. I’m standing on the edge of our box. I see their forwards making runs to the goal. I know the ball is probably going to be crossed into the box. But before their guy even swings the ball into the box, my head is already on a swivel. I’m scanning the entire field to get a mental picture of where all the chess pieces are on the board. Because I know my defender is going to have to head the ball out of the box, and he’s going to be rushed. If the ball comes to me, I don’t have a second to control the ball and look up for an open man. If I take that second, the passing lane will be closed down. I have to know where I’m going to make my first pass well before the ball actually comes to me.
If you come to a game and watch me away from the ball, I’m always looking back and forth and over my shoulder, like I’m paranoid or something. But I’m just taking snapshots and processing a mental map that’s always changing.
But passing the ball is just half the battle. The absolute most important thing is where I move next. We’re always trying to create “triangles.” Triangles are gold in soccer. You want to constantly be creating 3 vs. 2 situations. The most important thing to do after you make a pass, is move into a new space. They key is to play and move. We want to be attacking and changing the look of the field all the time to make life difficult for our opponent. Watch FC Barcelona play if you want to see this at the highest level: Eleven guys are in constant movement. Nobody is standing still.
I know when I was young, I wasn’t the fastest or the biggest kid. So I had to rely on my vision to excel. I feel like creative midfielders are often born from failure, in a way. They see their limitations and realize their mind can outrun even the fastest player in the world.
Obviously, even if you know where you want to go with the ball, you still have to do it. And so a big part of my job is my relationship with the ball, especially what’s referred to as touch. One thing that’s hard to pick up on TV is that the ball isn’t static. It’s very volatile. It’s spinning, hopping, floating, dipping, moving in the air. You have to be able to “absorb” the ball when it comes to you, not just receive it. This isn’t just about having soft feet. It’s about how you position your entire body.
Watch a soccer game and you’ll notice that even guys at the highest level will try to one-time a shot and send it into the upper-deck. These same guys can probably hit a dead ball into the corner from 30 yards out. But everything gets much more complicated when the ball is moving. If the ball is coming toward you and it’s spinning away from you, you have to position your body precisely so you can counteract that spin. You have to overcompensate and get your body “over” the ball order to even out the trajectory.
This is probably the hardest thing to explain to people who haven’t played the game. I’ve been juggling the ball since I was five years old, and sometimes I still make a bad pass or misplay a long ball. When you’re playing on the road in Europe, the fans love this. You’ll send a simple cross into the stands and they’ll give you their version of the Bronx cheer. Whistles ring throughout the stadium.
It keeps you humble, at least.
Screwing up like this is very, very easy to do when you’re tired. And that’s probably the toughest part of my job. There’s no time outs in soccer. If you’re gassed, you’re gassed. That’s it. You can’t just stop (unless you fake an injury, but I’m an American, that’s a no go). Every game is its own unique story. You go through peaks and valleys with your wind, so there’s times when a team will be totally under siege, and as a fan you might think, What the hell is going on? Pull it together. But what’s going on is that the team is exhausted, because they spent the previous 10 minutes pressing and pressing without getting a goal, so they didn’t get that adrenaline boost and now their legs are getting heavy.
That’s why you’ll often see games swung in the last 15 minutes. For me personally, I look at the 75th minute mark as my time. I try to be as fit as possible so I can exploit the space that starts to open up during the last 15. You’ll see teams’ formations start to sag a bit. They won’t be as tactically tight. It’s just natural. If you’re fit enough to keep your engine humming, you can really exploit the open spaces during that time. That’s where experience really comes into play. You don’t want to wear yourself out too early. And when the space opens up, that’s when I’ll deliver that killer pass I’ve been waiting for all game.