MLS Players Swap Jerseys on the Field 12 Years After Meeting in a Children’s Cancer Ward

A little over a decade ago, Sacha Klijestan was an American soccer star playing for the Major League Soccer (MLS) club Chivas USA in Los Angeles, California. Chris Hegardt was an 8-year-old youth soccer player in an LA children’s hospital battling cancer.

Fast forward 12 years, and the two soccer players met once again, this time on an MLS pitch. The two midfielders — linked by a chance encounter years ago — commemorated the incredible occasion with an emotional jersey swap at the conclusion of Charlotte FC’s historic first-ever MLS home game against the LA Galaxy.

Chris Hegardt and Sacha Kljestan met at Children’s Hospital LA in 2010

A soccer game saved Chris Hegardt’s life.

In 2009, the then-7-year-old got hit in the stomach with a ball during a youth soccer game, per SoundersFC.com. He got sick afterward, had to go to the emergency room. There, doctors found that the ball ruptured a cancerous tumor on his liver.

Over the next several years, Hegardt endured six total rounds of chemotherapy and a liver transplant. At one point, the San Diego native’s battle with cancer took him to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, one of the best pediatric hospitals in the country.  

It was there where Hegardt got to meet someone who was living his dream, MLS and U.S. Men’s National team star Sacha Kljestan and his wife.

The soccer-loving child and the professional star took pictures together, and Kljestan gifted Hegardt a jersey. The two parted ways and seemingly didn’t cross paths again until Saturday, March 5, 2022.

The two professional soccer players swapped jerseys after facing off against each other in 2022

Chris Hegardt eventually beat cancer and became a soccer star in his own right. In 2011, he won a youth soccer national championship with his San Diego Surf team. He then went on to play the sport in college at Georgetown University.

Hegardt made his professional debut in 2019 with the Tacoma Defiance (part of the Seattle Sounders organization) and trained with the Sounders’ first team. In January 2022, the Sounders traded Hegardt to the expansion Charlotte FC franchise.

As the 20-year-old Hegardt stood on the sideline of his (and Charlotte’s) first-ever MLS home game, a 36-year-old Sacha Kljestan was on the opposite touchline for the LA Galaxy.

Kljestan entered the game just after halftime due to an injury to Victor Valdez. Hegardt entered the game with three minutes left in regulation.

After the final whistle blew on a 1-0 Galaxy victory, the aging star and the rising talent met near midfield. The pair engaged in the soccer tradition of exchanging jerseys.

During the touching moment, caught on video, you can faintly hear Kljestan telling Hegardt, “I’m just happy to see you, man,” and, “you never know what happens,” seemingly referring to the sick kids pro players visit in hospitals.

Kljestan then told Hegardt, “I’m looking forward to watching your career.”

The Charlotte FC vs. LA Galaxy game set an MLS attendance record

Sacha Kljestan of Los Angeles Galaxy, who swapped jerseys with Chris Hegardt, is pictured during a match against New England Revolution.
Sacha Kljestan | Shaun Clark/Getty Images

While some will remember the game for the personally significant moment between Sacha Kljestan and Chris Hegardt, the contest was a historic one as well.

In Charlotte FC’s first-ever home game at the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium, the match against the LA Galaxy drew an incredible 74,479 attendees, breaking the all-time MLS attendance record of 73,019 set during the 2018 MLS Cup contest between the Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, per MLS.com.

The game was a tense affair. The Galaxy dominated possession and scoring chances throughout the game, but Charlotte hung tough, keeping a clean sheet for most of the game and creating a few gasp-enduing chances of their own.

LA won the game when 19-year-old Efrain Alvarez scored seven minutes after coming onto the field to give his team their 1-0 final scoreline.

It was an incredible game all around and one that Kljestan, Hegardt, Alvarez, or any of the 74,000-plus in attendance will not soon forget.

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