Incredible as it may seem today, hardly anyone recruited Sacha Kljestan as a high school senior in Huntington Beach, Ca.

One guy from New Jersey was an exception. Seton Hall men’s soccer coach Manny Schellscheidt saw something others overlooked. Maybe he didn’t envision a future Major League Soccer star and a fixture on the sport’s international stage, but he thought Kljestan would look awfully good in a Pirate uniform.

“It’s just something that you see in a guy that you really like,” Schellscheidt said. “He was always very skillful. He read the game well as an attacking player. I couldn’t really understand why nobody else was looking into it.”

Schellscheidt made his recruiting pitch. It bounced off the crossbar.

“I pretty much told him, ‘No thanks,’” Kljestan said. “I wasn’t really interested in coming to New Jersey from California.”

The coach persisted, so Kljestan asked around about his suitor. He heard good things, took a visit and decided to come east.

“He was the coach who gave me tons of confidence,” Kljestan said. “He enjoyed the way I played the game, the way I saw the game. It was a perfect fit.”

That fit propelled Kljestan to where he is now, a central figure on the New York Red Bulls as they prepare for game two of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference finals. The contest against the Columbus Crew, which won the opener, takes place Sunday, 7:30 p.m. at Red Bull Arena.

A bag of bones

Kljestan arrived in South Orange in 2003 as a rail-thin kid with big dreams.

“Back in those days he was a bag of bones,” said Gerson Echeverry, then an assistant and now Seton Hall’s head coach. “His body hadn’t caught up with his brain. His soccer IQ was extremely high.”

Echeverry was a third-team All-American at the Hall in the early 1990s, so he spotted Sacha’s intangibles right away.

“On his recruiting trip he said, I want to come to Seton Hall to get trophies,” Echeverry recalled. “Whenever someone says that, it opens your eyes. You knew he had that winning mentality.”

Schellscheidt made him the Pirates’ focal point from the start.

“As a freshman I came in and the team ran through me,” Kljestan said. “It was a big step for me. I felt the pressure to make guys around me better.”

The midfielder led the Pirates to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances and earned two All-America citations.

“He has the capacity to play well not only for himself, but he makes the guys around him better,” Schellscheidt said. “That’s the best thing you can say about anybody.”

In tip-top shape

No longer a well-kept secret, Kljestan was chosen fifth in the 2006 MLS Draft. He immediately flourished at Chivas USA, where he met a second coaching mentor, Jesse Marsch.

Marsch noticed one thing right away: Kljestan possessed unusual stamina.

“A lot of guys, when they’re coming from college to pro, the season is so long, in the middle they dip a bit,” said Marsch, now the Red Bulls’ head coach. “He never really dipped much, and at the end of the year it started coming together for him.”

When it comes to work rate, Kljestan “has always been able to meet a high standard,” Marsch said.

“One thing I’ll give him a lot of credit for when he was young: The off-the-field stuff, he was on top of it,” Marsch said. “He wasn’t a big partier. He handled his nutrition and sleep. He had good habits off the field for a younger player, which you don’t always see.”

Kljestan credits Schellscheidt with showing him the best way to stay fit.

“When I played at Seton Hall, Manny thought we should get our fitness by playing games and playing with the ball and doing soccer-style things — not just running on a track,” he said. “I’ve carried that with me. I don’t need to be out there running laps and going crazy.”

Schellscheidt, who is a fixture on the sidelines during Red Bulls training sessions, takes pride in Kljestan’s motor.

“Now they have these gadgets that track the distance players run in a game and he’s always up there, but that’s because he’s always involved,” he said. “You will never see him standing around. There’s no ball watching.”

‘As good as it gets’

In between Chivas and his return to Jersey this year, Kljestan played for the U.S. national team and R.S.C. Anderlecht in Belgium. With the latter he appeared in the Champions League – the world’s highest level of club soccer.

“Champions League three seasons in a row is one of the best experiences of my life because it taught me a lot about myself,” he said. “I stood on the field toe to toe with some of the best players in the world and never felt inferior to them. I hope to carry that along with me as I push toward the MLS Cup.”

The 30-year-old Kljestan’s resume, Schellscheidt said, “is about as good as it gets for an American kid.”

An MLS Cup would add a feather to the cap. Kljestan has eight goals and a team-high 14 assists this season. His creativity drives the bus. So does his attitude.

“He’s exceeded expectations, and I had really high expectations,” Marsch said. “With his off-the-field presence and maturity, his way of treating other people, and then you add in the training and the talent, he’s had a huge impact on our team. A lot of guys look to him as a big-time leader, a guy they can count on and trust.”

Kljestan chuckled at the suggestion that by coming full circle — from Seton Hall to the Red Bulls — he’s a Jersey guy now.

“I still consider myself a California guy, but I do love New Jersey,” he said. “Maybe I’m 60-40 right now, still California. But I’ve got a long-term contract here.”

That’s good news for the Red Bulls – and for the college program that discovered him.

“I thought he would be a very good pro, but I didn’t predict he’d be this good in the pros,” Echeverry said. “For a New Jersey team to be in the conference finals and to be led by one of our own from Seton Hall, we couldn’t be more proud.”

Staff writer Jerry Carino: jcarino@gannettnj.com.