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Jan 24, 2009

Kljestan steals the show with stellar display

Carson, Calif. -- Sacha Kljestan, meet Aldo "Buff" Donelli.

Saturday evening at the Home Depot Center, Kljestan joined Donelli as the only other American player to get his first goal with the national team as part of a hat trick.

Kljestan's three goals provided the difference as the United States topped Sweden 3-2 in a friendly that showcased the national team's younger players.

When asked if he had ever heard of Donelli, who scored four goals in a 1934 World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Rome, Kljestan was direct.

"No," Kljestan said. "But he's my amigo now."

With most of the national team's top players plying their trade in Europe, coach Bob Bradley opted for a youth movement against a Swedish team that was also without most of its more experienced players. Troy Perkins, Chris Wingert and Robbie Rogers all got their first caps for the United States, which featured 15 players with fewer than 10 international appearances.

But it was Kljestan who made the most impact.

His first tally came on a superb free kick from 10 yards outside the penalty box. Brian Ching, who drew contact from a Swedish defender seemingly every time he touched the ball, was hauled down from behind, setting up the opportunity.

Facing a three-man wall, Kljestan, who has been working on his free kicks with former national team star Preki, hit a rocket that sailed past Swedish goalkeeper Johan Dahlin and into the upper left corner of the net.

"I tried to focus a lot and tried to put the ball where I wanted it and it went there tonight, I think," Kljestan said.

In the 40th minute Kljestan converted a penalty kick after Wynne was pulled down in the box. Kljestan's low shot to his right beat Dahlin easily, who guessed incorrectly and dove the wrong way.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Mexico
Feb. 11
Columbus Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 HD

In the 74th minute, just after a Swedish goal from Daniel Nannskog had pulled the visitors within 2-1, Kljestan completed his hat trick with what would turn out to be the game-winning goal.

Defender Danny Califf sent a long ball to the top of the box, which Ching smoothly brought down between two defenders. Ching then found Kljestan streaking through the box and snuck a pass to him behind the last of the Swedish defense. Kljestan calmly slotted the ball past Dahlin to join Donelli in the history books.

For Kljestan, it was a whirlwind return to the national team after a five-day training session with Scottish giants Celtic F.C. He arrived back in Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon and trained with the national team Friday evening. Despite the quick turnaround, Kljestan felt well-rested for Saturday's game.

"I slept on the flight home and then my body adjusted real well. I think it's always easier coming back," he said.

Kljestan's eye-opening performance wasn't overlooked by Bradley.

"It's nice to see Sacha get some goals. I think he's worked hard in this camp, took a little break in the middle, but he came back strong. That was important for us tonight," Bradley said.

For Kljestan, who appeared as a substitute in the January 2008 national team victory over Sweden and starred in last summer's Olympic Games in Beijing, scoring the 11th hat trick in the history of the U.S. men's national team was secondary to the result in the field.

"Getting a hat trick is pretty exciting for me. I've never scored more than one goal as a professional in one game before," Kljestan said. "But it's more exciting to get the win. I'm glad we held on in the end."

Andy Firchau is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at a_firchau@yahoo.com.

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