U.S. Abroad: The Saga of Subotic

With war on the horizon, Neven Subotic's Serbian family fled Bosnia in 1990 when he was 18 months old and settled in Schoemberg, a small town in Germany's Black Forest. As refugees with few options, the family moved into the clubhouse attic of a local soccer team that his father joined.

"We lived there because we had nowhere else to stay at that moment," said Subotic. "So with the soccer field right in front of the door, it all started. I was always playing with my dad, and I always watched when he played with the team. Whenever I wanted to kick around, I could find someone to play with me."

Neven's father, Zeljko, had played pro ball in the former Yugoslavia. Neven started playing organized soccer for TSV Schwarzenberg at age 7 while spending time on the ball whenever he could.

"Pickup games were standard there," says Neven. "We played before school, during school, in breaks, and after school.

"There was a religion class at school, and when it took place a few other students and I had to go to another empty classroom, because we were of another religion as the one being taught. And there we would play soccer with a tennis ball until the class had finished and we could return to our normal class."

Neven enjoyed his life in Germany and was disappointed when his parents announced that they would have to leave - their German residence authorization having expired when he was 11 years old. The family opted to move to the USA in 1999.

Neven would return to Germany seven years later to pursue a pro soccer career. After two years with Mainz 05, including the 2007-08 season in which Kicker Magazine named him the Second Division's top central defender, he moved to top-tier Borussia Dortmund on a $5.5 million transfer.

Subotic's fantastic start at Dortmund -- he scored three goals in his first four games - prompted the German national team to court his services. Subotic, who is eligible to represent Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, has until his 21st birthday (Dec. 10, 2009) to make a decision on which nation's jersey to wear.

The USA, of course, hopes he will stay in its program. And although Subotic has spent most of his years in Germany, his American soccer experience helped him get to where he is today.

A DAY IN THE PARK. The Subotics settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, where a cousin of Zeljko's lived. Neven had English classes in his German school, was especially eager to understand TV shows, and within three months became fluent.

He was disappointed that the kids in school didn't play much soccer, but his father bought him a ball and he kicked around on a nearby tennis court. Eventually, he played for Sparta Gold and Impact Black youth clubs.

After a year and a half, the family moved to Bradenton, Fla., so that his sister, Natalija, could attend the Bollettieri Tennis Academy at the IMG Academy, which is also home to the U.S. U-17 national team residency program. The Subotics lived across the street from the academy and Neven would train on his own and with his father at GT Bray Park.

That's where he was spotted by Keith Fulk, one of the U.S. U-17 assistant coaches.

"I saw a tall, lanky, thin kid with a bag of balls," says Fulk. "I was there for a friend's son, and I saw this kid who had probably 12 balls, and he was just ripping balls into the goal, over and over. But the thing that impressed and always stuck with me, was that when he finished shooting, he started running. He would shoot the balls, then would run two laps around the soccer field at a very good pace.

"Then he'd go get the balls and shoot 12 balls with his left foot. Then he'd run two more, then he'd go and do volleys. Then he'd run more. And he could strike a ball!"

Fulk said he first saw him on a Tuesday, then on a Wednesday. And the next week he'd see him on a Thursday - making it safe to conclude that this was one dedicated young player.

Fulk introduced himself to Subotic, who told his story and said that he was about to get his U.S. citizenship. Fulk informed John Ellinger, then the U-17 head coach, and they invited Subotic to a tryout. Subotic said he was a forward, but they tried him at defensive midfielder and central back - and offered him a spot in the residency camp.

"Boom, we brought him in," said Fulk. "He lived across the street of the Academy so he remained at home, which meant he was a bonus player. His dad actually worked in the school. He cleaned the school. He had three or four jobs. He was a very hard-working man and a good person. The rest is history. It's amazing."

For the second time in his life, the Subotic family had found a home that furthered their son's soccer ambitions.

"At that time I had not had a club team for about a year or two," says Subotic. "I was overwhelmed after they accepted me. I remember Coach Ellinger telling me that I made it. So then back at the changing rooms I made it official and just screamed it out in front of everyone."

Subotic played 89 minutes in four games at the 2005 U-17 World Cup, where the Americans reached the quarterfinals. He was headed to the University of South Florida. But while with the U-17s in the Netherlands, where they played against Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven, he was approached by player agent Steve Kelly, who asked him if he was interested in playing in Europe.

Subotic answered in the affirmative and said his preference would be with a club in Germany near his childhood friends. Kelly also represented American Conor Casey, who played for Mainz 05. A tryout was arranged and Subotic impressed.

BACK 'HOME' IN GERMANY. During the 2006-07 season, Subotic played for Mainz's youth and Fourth Division teams. But in the last game of the season, with Mainz already doomed to Second Division relegation, he started and played the full 90 minutes in a 5-2 loss to Bayern Munich, becoming, at age 18, the youngster American to play in the Bundesliga. (The youngest previous Bundesliga debut by an American came from Jovan Kirovski - at age 20 in 1996 for Borussia Dortmund.)

The following season Subotic played 33 games and scored four goals for Mainz in the Second Division. When Mainz coach Juergen Klopp moved to Borussia Dortmund he brought Subotic along and made him the center of his young defense.

"The thing that really helped me play good soccer was that it felt so good to be here, home," says Subotic.

Subotic's bio on Borussia Dortmund's official Web site describes him as a "modern central defender" with confidence on the ball and exceptional positioning aptitude that enables him to excel with "hardly any fouling." In his 33 games in Mainz, he received just two yellow cards and was called for a foul just once every 76 minutes.

"I win my battles and do my job pretty well in the defense, and even
score some goals up top," Subotic says. "The thing I need to do now is just play consistently good, and gain experience.

"My attitude has always been the key factor for everything I do. Even when I had some bad days, I gave 100 percent and the coaches took notice of that, plus my quality, and then let me play."

While German fans are awaiting news of whether Subotic will play for their country, he has also became a media favorite thanks to the spectacular start at Dortmund, his friendly interviews, and a relationship with German U-20 pole vault world champion Lisa Ryzih, whom he met when they appeared on the TV talk show "Flutlicht."

Borussia Dortmund, which celebrates its centenary next year, last won the Bundesliga title in 2002, its third to go with three pre-Bundesliga German titles and the 1997 Champions League title.

Dortmund's 13th-place finish in 2007 was its worst since 1988. But it has started strong this season thanks much to the 19-year-old Subotic.

In his debut for Dortmund, the 6-foot-4 Subotic headed home the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over Bayer Leverkusen. In his third game, he provided the goal in a 1-0 win over Energie Cottbus. And in his fourth game, against archrival Schalke 04, he scored Dortmund's first goal as it overcame a 3-0 deficit to tie, 3-3.

Dortmund lies in the Ruhr Valley, considered the heart and soul of the German game despite all the titles swept up by Bayern Munich. Borussia Dortmund's attendance average leads the league.

"I love the crowds at our home games," Subotic says. "We always get the stadium filled with 80,000 people and that can be a lot of fun with the fans. But the main reason why I play here is because I'm happy here. I have everything I need, a very good club with which I can grow, and great people to enjoy that with."

Germany coach Joachim Loew told Germany's Bild newspaper he's interested in Subotic's services and that the German soccer federation (DFB) is confident that he can get citizenship and eligibility. FIFA regulations allow players to switch national teams before the age of 21. However, they also require that the player was eligible for the country he's switching to at the time he played for the other nation.

Subotic was not a German citizen when he played in the U-17 World Cup, but a DFB representative said that regulation is open to interpretation and it will appeal, apparently on the grounds that Subotic could have been a German citizen at the time.

That the USA has already lost two young talented players to foreign national teams - New Jerseyan Giuseppe Rossi to Italy and New Mexico product Edgar Castillo to Mexico - would make losing Subotic that much more disappointing.

For his part, Subotic says he is focusing on his club play and will "make an entirely professional decision" regarding which nation to represent.

He had previously stated his disappointment at being criticized by U.S. U-20 national team Coach Thomas Rongen, who left him out of the 2007 U-20 World Cup squad, but Subotic said that will not enter into his decision-making.

Of course, Fulk, who first spotted the boy practicing at the park, hopes that the USA will once again benefit from his talents. In the meanwhile, he's happy - but not that surprised - at Subotic's success, because his talent and work ethic always had a professional edge to it.

"I was flicking through the channels when I came across the Borussia Dortmund-Bayern Munich game," Fulk says. "My wife was in the kitchen and I said, 'Mara, Mara! Holy cow, Neven Subotic is marking Luca Toni!' The reason I said Luca Toni is because she's Italian and that would get her attention. 'She said, Luca Toni's great.' I said, 'Sure, but that's Neven!' He played with us in Bradenton!'"

(This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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