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U.S. national team can’t escape real-world politics in wake of Trump’s executive order

United States players line up during the national anthem before a soccer friendly against Serbia on Jan. 29 in San Diego.
(Denis Poroy / Associated Press)

Sports are supposed to offer a relief from politics, except, of course, if the sport in question is soccer.

In that case, the sport is impossible to separate from the outside world, as U.S. national team midfielder Sacha Kljestan was reminded Sunday. The U.S. played against Serbia, his father’s homeland.

With President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration inspiring protests across the country, Kljestan could only think of his father’s story, which he called “the American Dream — the real American Dream.”

The story starts with a young man named Slavko running away from an abusive home in Yugoslavia and relocating to Canada, where his sister was living. Slavko later moved to the United States as an undocumented immigrant, entering the country in the trunk of an automobile. He hitchhiked to Southern California, picked up a phone book and dialed the numbers of people with Serbian-sounding names. He found a temporary home, worked, saved money and started a successful custom woodworking business in Orange County.

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“That’s where I get my work ethic from,” Kljestan said, referring to his father. “That’s why I’m very supportive of immigrants and I’m pretty disgusted with the way we’ve handled things, not as a country, but in the White House, in the last week.”

Kljestan wasn’t alone in sharing such an opinion before and after the U.S. and Serbia played to a 0-0 tie.

Soccer is a sport in which international competitions are especially important. Top players are viewed as representatives of their countries as much as they are athletes.

While the U.S. national team remains in search of its on-field identity — few questions were answered in the scoreless draw at Qualcomm Stadium against what was essentially Serbia’s B-team — its players have embraced their role as national spokesmen. Their views reflect their backgrounds, which have more diversity than is found on any other team in American sports.

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Jermaine Jones was born in Germany, Darlington Nagbe in Liberia, Benny Feilhaber in Brazil and Juan Agudelo in Colombia. Jozy Altidore’s family is from Haiti, Jorge Villafana’s from Mexico and Sebastian Lleget’s from Argentina.

The first to speak out on Trump’s executive order was midfielder Michael Bradley, the white son of a Princeton-educated coach.

Bradley, who wore a rainbow-colored captain’s armband last year in the wake of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida, said in an interview with Sports Illustrated on Saturday that he opposed Trump’s ban on travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries. Bradley doubled down on his comments a few hours later by posting a message on his Instagram account, saying the statement he made to the magazine was “too soft.”

“The part I left out is how sad and embarrassed I am,” Bradley wrote. “When Trump was elected, I only hoped that the President Trump would be different than the campaigner Trump. That xenophobic, misogynistic and narcissistic rhetoric would be replaced with a more humble and measured approach to leading our country. I was wrong. And the Muslim ban is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward.”

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U.S. Soccer didn’t have any problems with Bradley sharing his opinion, with Sunil Gulati, the organization’s president, and Coach Bruce Arena supporting his right to do so. The message was approved by other players on the team.

“I think he took a strong stand and the right stand,” Kljestan said.

Nagbe said he was particularly bothered by Trump’s decision to turn back refugees. A federal judge has temporarily blocked a part of Trump’s executive order.

“At one point, I was a refugee,” Nagbe said. “My mother was a refugee.”

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Shortly after he was born, Nagbe said, he and his family fled war-torn Liberia and moved to Sierra Leone as refugees. They eventually settled in Ohio.

“I know the pain that they’re feeling at this moment,” Nagbe said. “Moving to this country was one of the best things that happened to us.”

Defender Greg Garza thought about scenes he witnessed at the southern U.S. border while playing for a Tijuana-based team in the Mexican league.

“I would say the toughest image for me being in Mexico is probably going to Playas de [Tijuana] and seeing the people shaking hands or hugging from the wall,” he said. “Those are pretty tough images to see. Those are tough subjects to talk about.”

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Kljestan sighed.

“It’s been tough, but I still am optimistic and hopeful that President Trump will do a good job,” he said. “I’m red, white and blue in my core.”

Optimistic? How?

Kljestan chuckled.

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“There’s no other way to look at it,” he said. “I’ve never been a negative person. I’m just hopeful. I have hope for the future. I hope for the best. I hope that always good will win out.”

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter: @dylanohernandez

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