BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, January 9, 2013
With most leagues in Europe wrapping up winter breaks and preparing for the second half of their seasons, one of the hottest teams on the continent is Belgian leaders Anderlecht.
After winning the title in 2011/12, it was unknown how Anderlecht were going to defend their championship after Ariel Jacobs left to take the top job at Copenhagen and was replaced by John van den Brom.
Kljestan, 27, was a regular starter under Jacobs but when Van den Brom was hired, he struggled to get playing time in the new formation. Gradually he trained well and forced himself back into the starting lineup in a 4-2-3-1 where he plays with Argentine Lucas Biglia in the deep lying midfield positions.
So far the move has paid off and Kljestan and Anderlecht now have a 10 game winning streak in league play and have a eight point cushion at the top of the Belgian table.
"Overall, it's been a really, really good year," Kljestan told YA. "Certainly after celebrating my first title, it was a nice way to start the summer. Then we played in the Champions League and ended the year with a  game winning streak in the league. I think we did okay in the Champions League. Overall, it's been a really, really good year."
For Kljestan, 2012 was a year where he proved his importance on the field at Anderlecht. Now in 2013, he looks to continue his growth with another Belgian title and a stronger performance in the Champions League. With 18 months remaining on his contract, he is also in discussions with Anderlecht for a possible extension.
In their most recent Champions League campaign, Anderlecht made the group stages for the first time in seven years but did not advance out of a powerful group that also consisted of AC Milan, Malaga, and Zenit St. Petersburg. Anderlecht were competitive in each game but made several mistakes at key moments that proved to be fatal.
Despite that, Kljestan felt it was a great opportunity to play in the world's premier club competition and believes that they will be more prepared in the future.
"It was a great experience," Kljestan said of the recent Champions League campaign. "It was a learning experience. After three games we realized that we had a strong possibility of actually finishing in second place and making it out of the group. We made a few small mistakes and we certainly paid for them. I think as a team we underestimated ourselves against some in this competition. It bodes well for us in the future and I think we gained a lot of experience."
On a personal standpoint, Kljestan also feels that the Champions League was an important step for him personally in that it gave him the confidence to play against the best players in the world. It also gave him a better understanding as to the quality he possesses as a player.
"I think confidence is the biggest thing I've gained personally from my Champions League experience," Kljestan added. "I think I had a pretty good tournament personally. I played against some good players and stood my ground. For me personally, I gained a lot of confidence from that tournament. I know my level as a player now and I'm happy with it."
In addition to his success with Anderlecht, 2012 was also an important year for Kljestan on the international front where he went from being on the outside of Jurgen Klinsmann's plans for the US national team to getting back into the picture for important World Cup qualifiers.
For the first year of Klinsmann's tenure as national team head coach, many believed that his reluctance to callup Kljestan was his biggest oversight. Gradually through his consistent performances for Anderlecht, he was able to earn a callup for the important World Cup qualifiers.
With players like Michael Bradley, Danny Williams, and Jermaine Jones playing in his natural midfield position, Kljestan was asked to play a more advanced role from wider positions. In those qualifiers against Antigua and Guatemala, Kljestan came on as a second half substitute and helped play a part in two wins that helped the US advance to the final hexagonal round in 2013.
It was a long road back to the national team for Kljestan but he is happy to be back with the team regardless of the different position and looks forward to 2013.
"[Klinsmann] has been very open when I came back into the qualifiers," Kljestan explained. "He told me ‘it's an important time for the team. We liked what we saw in your Champions League games and your league games and we hope you can bring something to the team.' It gave me confidence from the get-go. He recognized that maybe I had deserved to be there a little bit earlier but he didn't want to make a bunch of changes in the team. When he gave me my chance, I definitely grabbed it."
Kljestan may have more successful years in his future, but 2012 will be one of the important periods in his career. For both the national team and at Anderlecht, he forced himself back into the coach's plans after struggling to get minutes. By the end of the year, he has emerged as a key player moving forward.
What is different is that Kljestan is now a more confident player after proving himself in both the eyes of Jurgen Klinsmann and John van den Brom. Now with World Cup qualifying and another Champions League run ahead, he is poised to continue his growth.
"Whether it was growing up in football, or when I was at Chivas, or when I got to Anderlecht, I saw different players and the way they handled things," Kljestan concluded. "Certain players when they weren't playing, they got their head down, they busted their ass until they had a chance to play again. That's what I did. I saw other players who did the exact opposite and just moped, blamed everyone else except themselves, and didn't look in the mirror. I think it's a 100 percent mentality thing."
Kljestan and Anderlecht return from winter break on January 16 for a cup match against Gent. They return to league play on January 20 when they host second place Zulte-Waregem.