By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Dejan Jakovic has made a sound transition to D.C. United this spring, adapting to a new league and fortifying a back line that sprung leaks last year. On occasion, though, his thoughts have wandered to his previous club, Red Star Belgrade, the one-time European and world champion that he adored while growing up in the former Yugoslavia and then as a refugee in Canada, a club that fulfilled his boyhood dreams by offering him a contract last year.
In a shared apartment near Capitol Hill, he goes online to stay current. What he reads breaks his heart.
Red Star is tens of millions of dollars in debt. Players complain of missed paychecks. Water and electricity were temporarily cut off at club headquarters because of unpaid bills. The team cafeteria was shuttered.
"It's sad to see a big club like that go down," Jakovic said, shaking his head. "That was my family's team. That was my team. When I signed for them, it took me a while to realize I was really playing for Red Star Belgrade."
Jakovic, 23, joined United before things hit bottom at Red Star. After falling out of favor with a new coach and sitting on the bench for months, he welcomed a transfer to D.C. in late February. He has started eight of nine MLS matches, mostly in central defense, and is expected to be in the lineup again tonight when Eastern Conference leader United (3-1-5) faces Western front-runner Chivas USA (7-1-1) at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Jakovic was arguably the best player on the field during the first half of United's 3-3 tie with Toronto FC last weekend at RFK Stadium, stepping into passing channels to disrupt attacks and gracefully distributing the ball. But a miscommunication between him and goalkeeper Milos Kocic allowed Toronto to tie the score and shortly thereafter take the lead.
"We get in a couple situations where, if you don't take command on every play, you can play great for 89 minutes, and over the course of 30 seconds it could make you question whether he had a good game or not," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "But he has been maturing and understanding his role a lot better. He's been a real good pickup for us and I think he can continue to do better."
United had been monitoring the 6-foot-2 Jakovic (pronounced YA-ka-vich ) since his college career at Alabama-Birmingham. This past offseason, the club decided not to re-sign Argentine defender Gonzalo Peralta and was planning to acquire Brazilian veteran Roger, but when that deal fell through, Jakovic became the primary candidate.
"I wasn't playing at Red Star, and even though I was with a club I loved, it wasn't any good for me to sit on the bench," he said. "I'm young, I need to be playing. I wasn't sure it was going to work with D.C., but it happened really fast, and in the end, I am glad to be here."
Jakovic's journey to Washington has taken many turns. An ethnic Serb born in Karlovac, a city of 50,000 in what is now central Croatia, he fled with his family in 1991 to escape civil war and the ultimate breakup of Yugoslavia. They settled in Etobicoke, a neighborhood on the western edge of Toronto, and soon Jakovic was involved with organized soccer.
He rose through Canada's youth program and, at age 18, attracted interest from one of Red Star's rivals, OFK Belgrade. Instead of returning to his homeland, however, he enrolled at UAB and starred for three seasons with the Blazers. In 2008, after representing Canada's under-23 national team at the Olympic qualifying tournament, he signed with Red Star, Serbia's most popular team and the winner of both the European Cup and Club World Cup in 1991.
The start of Jakovic's career began well enough with appearances in league and European competition, but when the coach who signed him was dismissed, his playing time dried up and his future at the club dimmed. Several months passed before United stepped forward and completed the transfer deal.
Playing competitively again, Jakovic has resurfaced on Canada's national team radar. Though he has made just one appearance for the senior squad, Jakovic is anticipating a call-up for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a biennial regional championship that will take place July 3-26 at several U.S. venues. If summoned, he would miss at least two United matches.
United boasts improved roster depth this season, but Jakovic's absence would undoubtedly hurt.
"He never really panics and allows us to keep possession at times where, in the past, maybe we would have given it up," midfielder Clyde Simms said. "At the beginning of the year, there were a couple times where he was a little too composed and would lose the ball in the back, but he has done a great job getting used to the league and our play."
United Notes: M idfielders Ben Olsen (hamstring) and Andrew Jacobson (ankle) are expected to be in uniform after missing two and one games, respectively. . . . Kocic was not included on the travel roster, leaving Louis Crayton and Josh Wicks in contention to start in goal tonight. . . . Chivas star midfielder Sacha Kljestan will serve a yellow card suspension.