In Florida, where he once played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the fans had a name for Peter Baralic and his style of play.
"They called me 'hot legs,'" Baralic said, blushing.
Still, those legs are mostly responsible for Diplomat Coach Ken Furphy's prediction that Baralic, Washington's 29-year-old captain, will become "the general of the midfield." So far, in 11 games this season he has taken 24 shots, scored three goals and had two assists.
His finesse and experience, says Furphy, coupled with his "vision" to predict his opponents' next move, should allow him to score 12 to 15 goals from midfield.
Baralic agrees, somewhat hesitantly. What will make him play best, he said, is a challenge. "I play with heart."
He replayed last Sunday's 3-2 victory over the Cosmos, his dark eyes lighting up behind his amber shades.
"That was a beautiful, exciting game," said the man who scored the game-winning goal. "Good teams will make soccer fun, will make excellent games. You can't see a bad game and enjoy soccer. (After a bad game) you go home and say, 'Why did I come?'
"Against good teams I can show a lot. I play better against good teams. I played against the Cosmos four games and I scored five goals. Do I say enough?"
He smiled and recalled how he danced around Cosmos defender Bob Iarusci with a spectacular one-on-one fake, then sent a looping 25-yard kick into the net for Washington 20 minutes into the first half. "That was a surprise shot," he said. "Nobody expects a shot like that, I told Iarusci, 'See you later.'" Then smiled at him.
Baralic said he smiles a lot on the field. He wants to make soccer fun for the fans. That's why he takes chances, plays with "heart," and that's why he left Tampa.
Baralic turned professional in Yugoslavia at age 17 and began his North American Soccer League career with the Rowdies in 1979. He played in 28 games, scored nine goals and had eight assists. By last December, when he was traded to the Diplomats (then the Detroit Express) at his request, much of the fun was gone.
The difference? He had learned English. "When I couldn't speak English I just smiled a lot and played my heart out." Suddenly, Baralic said, he found himself having to play politics to get a chance to play.
There were personality conflicts, said publicist Marsha Schallert. She said some team members saw him as "a little bit of a hot dog. In fact, (Coach) Gordon Jago used to say, 'He has the ability and knows how to do the difficult things, but somehow he passes up the easy things.'"
"He's not a hot dog," Furphy said defensively. "In fact, we're trying to get him more off the ball. . .We're trying to get Pete more involved in the game."
Diplomat midfielder David Bradford described Baralic as a quiet but aggressive player."The defense in the midfield was what we really needed," Bradford said, adding Baralic has supplied it.
As Baralic chattered away incessantly, telling jokes, his face animated, it was hard to imagine him quiet. He talked about his love for his wife Meri and 7-month-old son Marko. They will rejoin him from Yugoslavia today after a two-month absence.
If he's quiet, he said, it is because of his difficulties with English. But on the soccer field, Baralic does his talking with those eloquent hot legs.