You’ve seen them on the pitch playing for Ottawa. We’ve cheered them on together in the stands. We want you to know what they’re about. Where they’re from, where they’ve been. What shapes them as a player. As a person. Everyone has a story and we want to tell theirs. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with the players and ask them about how they got here and I’m excited to share their stories with you. This series will continue through the Fall Season. –Kendra Lee
Tell me about where you grew up.
I was born in Zenica, Bosnia therefore that is my home country, but most of my life in Bosnia, I spent in the Serbian part of Bosnia which is now called Republic of Serbs (it’s a federal unit within Bosnia). My father is Serbian, and my mother Croatian so I have little bit of everything. Both my brother and I were baptized in Serbian church so we feel a stronger connection to Serbian culture than we do perhaps with Croatian or Bosnian. Zenica is one of the major cities in Bosnia, a big industrial capital if you will. The big steel factory was the main industry for many at the time. The name of the soccer club, Celik, is actually a name for “steel” in translation. I will never forget the city of my birth where I spent the first ten years of my life. Grew up playing soccer on the streets pretty much every day. Almost the entire family from my father’s and mother’s sides lived there as well so we had strong family connection and unity there. My first friendships were made there. After the war started we chose to move due to certain pressures that chaotic situation brings. Zenica was populated mainly by Muslims prior to and during the war, so it wasn’t exactly the safest area for non-Muslims, in this case Orthodox and Catholics. That’s how we found ourselves in Modrica, which was in the hands of Serbs, today Republic of Serbs.
When you were growing up, when did you start playing soccer?
I started playing with my dad. I have pictures of him, and a soccer ball with me, like in the parks, when I was honestly probably like 3, 4 years old, you know, when I first learned my first steps pretty much. But then after that, organized soccer came around when I was like 7 or 8. I joined the youth level of the local professional team, and then after that, when the war started we had to move to a different city called Modrica, and when I got to that city, I just continued. Again, joined the youth of a professional team and there I was from age 10 till the age of 14 or so before coming to the US. So, I pretty much learned my first steps from my dad as a baby pretty much, and then next it was at the academy with professional clubs.
And you played for Celik Zenica.
In Zenica yeah, and the club was always very good. They were either in the first league of former Yugoslavia which was a very competitive league back then, or second division, which is still big for you know for a country of that point, with like 4 or 5 professional divisions. So those years, maybe not there perhaps, but the stage after, when I went to a different city were the key years in my development because I learned the first steps of professional soccer and development.
Did you grow up watching and cheering for Celik?
Yeah, my dad was a big fan as well, so he took me to a couple of games, and even to this day it’s known as one of the most beloved teams in Bosnia by their fans. You know they always like to support the local team. I think even the national team plays their games in that stadium
How did your move to the States change things?
Well, at first it affected us cuz we didn’t know the system here. We didn’t know, me and my brother, we didn’t know where to play and how to continue because it was a big culture shock for us. The language was a huge barrier for the first few months because we couldn’t really speak English. I was almost 15. To learn English, to communicate it took probably a couple of months, but to learn to speak it a bit properly and to write it, it took a bit longer than that. But I was lucky to start school right away in September when we moved so I learned a lot quicker being around the kids who speak English all the time and being in school.
How did you get involved in a club when you moved to the states?
I met my to-be-godfather, at that point he wasn’t but I met him, through one of the mutual family friends. And he had his own youth club in Cleveland, called Cleveland United. So, me and my brother joined that club and played there all the way through high school before going to college. It was very good because we had a very good team and we made it to the regional competitions a few times. So it was a pretty successful and an easy transition for me to a new culture and a new country through sport. You know, meeting different people, I met my friends, that we played on the same club team, we’re still friends to this day. We talk, some of us went to the same college, so it was a unique experience and my godfather, I feel blessed that I found him, pretty much, in order to continue more in my soccer career.
At what point did you feel that you could play professionally?
It was always a childhood dream of mine. I didn’t know at what level I would end up, but I could just hear from the people around me. My last coach, back home in Bosnia, actually wanted to keep me and my brother. My brother was actually a bigger talent than me, but he wanted to keep me and my brother there and have my parents move to the US on their own but my dad said, “There’s no chance that’s happening.” Because the guy said that me and my brother have a unique talent for the game and with his development, maybe we could be looking at a good career. But I think at that point in our lives it was more important to look beyond soccer and look for a future and opportunities for the entire family to grow. And back home at that point the country was in a bit of a disaster if I may say. After the civil war everything was, the economy was down…it was just not a good situation for any family to grow and raise children. It was just a good chance for them to take at that point in their lives, to give us perhaps a better life. So my dad said no. So when I came to North America, you know I worked hard but I didn’t really know. At that point I lost, kinda like some of the interest that I had back then because I thought it was all lost. In 1999 in the United States you could not watch a soccer game on TV. It was literally impossible. And now you can watch almost every single league if you really wanted to. So the soccer in that country grew a lot and I kinda just went with it. And in college, I was lucky enough to have great years at the University of Akron. The program was very good and I was seen by some of the scouts and whatnot and they gave me an opportunity to go to New York.
Your brother Slavisa is also playing professionally. Were you really competitive when you were growing up?
Yes, very. Even though he’s two and a half years younger than me, but as I said, growing up, even maybe when we first came here, he was definitely a bigger talent than me. He just perhaps didn’t have the same drive as me, or luck. In soccer you have to have a lot of luck as well. But he was very very talented and a lot of people projected him a way better career than mine. There was a guy actually who saw him at the age of thirteen and wanted to take him to Europe when we first moved here, one of the guys who was a coach at Porto. But my dad, again, us being here said, “I’m not letting you take my kid because he’s thirteen years old, at the age of 16 years old, what, something doesn’t happen and he’s got nowhere.” So it didn’t happen but he had a lot of talent, he just didn’t take it as seriously as I did maybe.
Did that motivate you?
Yeah, you know everybody was always saying we’re good players, both of us but he had something that not many people had. He had instinct for a goal, left foot, there’s not that many left footers around. He had certain things that only so many people possess and it’s hard to find those players these days. But as I said, he didn’t take it as seriously as he should have and sometimes I get mad at him because he could have easily played at a higher level. I always tell guys there’s so many more talented players around the world that don’t play professionally because they don’t take it as seriously and maybe they don’t have the drive, they’re not willing to sacrifice the same things that the professional players do and I always say for any player that’s playing you have to give them respect because everybody here sacrifices something that not many people are willing to do just to play the game they love.
So when you went to university, did you have the goal of playing soccer?
Yes. When I went to university my first goal was soccer, my first and main idea of what I’m there for. But then when school started and everything else I, and speaking to my parents, I also realized that it’s also a key to gain a degree and to get an education since an opportunity like that comes only once in a lifetime. So I took that upon myself, and got my degree done. But I also took soccer very seriously just like a lot of the kids in the program.
And then you were drafted to the New York Red Bulls.
To be honest with you, I did not expect to go to New York. That was one of the teams that I did not see myself at, just because there were other clubs nearby me like Columbus or perhaps Chicago. And maybe I had in the back of my mind that maybe those were the clubs that actually had the most opportunities to come and see me play at college cuz it’s close by, but when I went to the draft, I got drafted by New York. At that time the coaches were former US internationals. The assistant coaches were Richard Williams and John Harkes and the coach was the former US national team coach, Bruce Arena. So, when I got drafted there I was actually super excited and I said,” I think this is a good place to be”. Obviously to have coaches like that, your first time going into professional life is key, cuz you have something to learn from them. They have huge experiences in the game and going there I was excited and it was a great experience. There was a lot of success. A lot of ups and downs but I think at the end of the day, I don’t regret one single thing that happened there because not too many people get the chance to live there, let a lone play soccer there in a city like that.
During that time the MLS increased in popularity. Did you notice a change?
Yes. Absolutely. As more European players trickled in, like David Beckham for example, Juan Pablo Angel, who is Colombian but played most of his career in the English Premier League, those guys, and even Claudio Reyna coming back. Some of the US internationals who were playing abroad were also coming back into the league so that also helped it grow in popularity, plus the guys that were already there for many years. I remember at my team in New York, we had guys who were capped in the Austrian national team in the World Cup. We had a guy, Dave van den Bergh, who played for Ajax, won the Champion’s League. Claudio Reyna, Clint Mathis, Dema Kovalenko, who’s known player in the MLS, Juan Pablo Angel. So there was a lot of guys on my team, a lot of older guys who you could learn something from and I think that experience was, for me, unique because you never know in this game what tomorrow brings or what next year brings or whatnot. But I think I took it in stride and learned a lot from them.
So after that you went to the Impact. How did you end up there?
Yes. After New York, I ended up in Montreal. It happened sort of out of the blue. I wasn’t really looking that much into Montreal to be honest with you. I was in Europe at the time and I was speaking to a couple of agents actually about going to Azerbaijan or China, and maybe pursuing something there. But my friend actually, who still plays there, phoned me up and kinda presented the opportunity. I was back home in Europe, he Skype me and said “There’s an opportunity here in Montreal, would you like to come?” And I sat down and I thought for not very long to be honest with you because I was at the age where if I go to China or Azerbaijan, I would be there for a good amount of my late 20s and the turning point of my life where I wanted to live and what I wanted to do and I think when I looked a that and I said, “Yeah, I know I want to go back to North America, you know whether it’s Canada or the US, it doesn’t really matter, I’m still over there.” So I honestly took off from there in two days I was in Montreal. Flew back to Cleveland, got my car and drove back up and I spent a couple of days there, spoke to Nick De Santos and Joey Saputo an decided it’s the best interest for both parties for me to stay.
While you were there the team went from USL to MLS. What was that like?
One of the reasons why I went there was because I knew the team was going to MLS so I said, “This is a good chance for me to go back up to MLS,” where I wanted to be. So going there I really needed to prove myself a little bit in order for them to keep me for the MLS years. It was a great experience. The club, when moving from a lower division up, there’s always a lot of work to be done, a lot of improvements that you visualize and you see it happening and it actually makes you excited and happy about it because the stadium got improved because they built a bigger one, office building, new staff, larger number of people working for the club. The city was more about MLS buzz. There was something in the city, that everyone was happy to have a professional club in MLS. And in Montreal, there’s such a big diversity in cultures where people actually are passionate about the game, it was a very good time to be there during those years.
What influenced your decision to come to Ottawa and play for the Fury?
It was mostly Marc. When I spoke to him, even back in Montreal…from the first moment we met, we discussed soccer and certain things, you know, world soccer and I liked his vision of what the game should look like and also I liked the challenge because being a new team in the NASL, it’s a big step for the city and for the club coming from PDL. There are, obviously, also growing pains and there still are to this day because everybody needs to learn certain roles within the club and how certain things work at the professional level. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the club is going in the right direction. And improvements that we’ve seen from the pre-season to now are tremendous and I think we’re only going to get bigger.
What are your goals for the future?
My goals at this point are very simple. Stay healthy, stay fit, help the team as much as possible, and play and give my best everyday for the cause. At this point my individual goals for me sort of got a little bit of less importance as the years went on because now I’m at the age where I’m one of the veteran guys, one of the experienced guys, so what I want to concentrate on is to help the team win as many games and to do my best, but also give a good example for the younger kids because we have a lot of young guys and I always tell them that even though we are in the NASL and it’s a professional club, you should always shoot for more because you guys are young. What is the best thing around you? If it’s MLS, you shoot for that because if you shoot for that you’re gonna play much better now. It’s all about putting the positive pressure on yourself, healthy pressure, if I may, that you want to do well because doing well for here also means good for the club and also proves that you’re good enough to go to the next level.
What do you see for the future of soccer in North America?
I think the future is looking bright. Looking at what MLS is doing and their improvements, it kinda goes hand in hand with NASL because as MLS improves all the other leagues are going to improve. The NASL is improving year to year just like MLS. I think the quality’s getting better, I think the training and playing conditions are getting better, more investments into the game especially for the projects and stadiums and training facilities and whatnot. We see in the NASL, I think a few years ago not too many clubs could say they had such stadiums as they have now, as we have now. North Carolina increased and improved theirs, Fort Lauderdale is playing in a nice stadium, Atlanta has a fairly new complex, Minnesota is looking to improve and build a brand new one downtown. And I think there are other teams that are coming in. I think next year Jacksonville comes in and I’m not sure about Oklahoma and Virginia might come in the following year. As long as you have new teams that are willing to come into your league that means that the league is doing something good.