MLS: Preki's Thinking Game

The eight-time MLS All-Star is in his third season as head coach of Chivas USA, where he draws on his playing experiences in Europe and the United States to aid his quest for an MLS Cup title.

The response was typical Preki, a matter-of-fact statement that barely conveyed the magnitude of what he and the U.S. national team had just accomplished.

Players, coaches, staff members and fans celebrated deliriously at the Los Angeles Coliseum moments after the final whistle had ended an historic victory: USA 1, Brazil 0 in the semifinals of the 1998 Concacaf Gold Cup.

Preki, scorer of said goal, when told the strike resembled one he nailed against Costa Rica earlier in the tournament, answered with a smile, "Well, maybe they should have watched that game, then they wouldn't have been surprised.

"But I think I still would have scored."

That shot - a searing left-footed blast into the top corner from outside the penalty area - and his reaction are a melding of the tenets and beliefs he personified as a player, and now preaches as head coach of Chivas USA. On that occasion, he quickly passed on praise to goalkeeper Kasey Keller, whose remarkable saves shut the door on Romario and his Brazilian teammates.

Few men to play in MLS or for the U.S. national team have possessed his touch and balance and skill, or his instincts and vision, and not enough of them know those qualities aren't enough.

"Everything that the players have, they have to leave it on the field, and not just physically, but we also demand that they think, because this is a thinking game," says Preki, who came to America more than 20 years ago from his native Yugoslavia to play indoor soccer and aside from three seasons in England, has worked here ever since. "The thinking part is so important. Some guys are born with it, and some guys they need a lot of work on it. If you see how the game is not just here, but around the world, and you see how physical the game is being played, the players who can think faster and react faster and have very good feet and tactical ability can survive, and not just survive, but have a chance to excel."

Excel is what he's done, whether that meant piling up goals and assists for three indoor teams in the original Major Indoor Soccer League and Continental Indoor Soccer League and MLS teams in Kansas City and Miami (1996-2005), or playing for Everton and Portsmouth (1992-95), or coaching in MLS for the past three years.

"You could see raight away he was a different class, that he had bundles of talent," says Toronto FC Director of Soccer/Manager Mo Johnston, who played with Preki at Everton and Kansas City. "A very, very good player. In MLS, he could absolutely dominate a game on his own, just take it over. A great finisher who could also set up goals. Just look at what he accomplished in our league. He led the league in scoring [twice], we won a championship, he was always on the All-Star team [eight appearances].

"He was a real No. 10, but Everton didn't play with a No. 10, so he played out wide. Even so, he was the kind of player you knew could win games for you."

Preki, who obtained U.S. citizenship in 1996, won that game against Brazil at the Coliseum while scoring the last of his four goals in a U.S. uniform. A few months later, he would realize a boyhood dream by playing in the World Cup, but a dispute with head coach Steve Sampson over playing time threw additional fuel on an imploding team.

In 2000, Preki and Johnston lifted the MLS Cup trophy. A salary dispute prompted Kansas City to send him to Miami, but he returned when the Fusion folded after the 2001 season. He once assessed MLS play along the lines of "everyone running around at 100 miles an hour until somebody makes a mistake and a goal is scored."

As a coach, he's occasionally run afoul of league rules prohibiting criticism of officials and has more than once jawed with opposing coaches and players. A year and a half ago, a fierce, face-to-face postgame argument with Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear heated up the highlight segments on sports telecasts.

He values tenacity as much as talent. Pretty soccer for the sake of pretty soccer doesn't fascinate him.

 "I had to leave [Yugoslavia] when I was pretty young," he says. "I grew up in a tough environment and when I was 16 I understood what it was going to take for me to get to the next level. It wasn't an easy task but there's nothing easy in life. Sometimes in this country we think things should be easy."

FAREWELL TO RED STAR. In his teen years he earned a spot on the books of legendary club Red Star Belgrade, one of Eastern Europe's most prestigious clubs and a regular competitor in European competitions. He had turned pro at age 16 - two years before joining Red Star - having already been indoctrinated about playing for keeps.

"When I was 12, I played with guys who were 18 or 19 and I got smacked around, I got kicked, I got pulled by my ears and all those things," he recalls. "I would walk outside my house and play every day. That's the culture, that's how you grow up, that's how your mentality gets better, that's how you toughen up.

"And when you play in those games and you get smacked around and then you go into an environment where you play against your own age, you're already have toughness and understand what it takes. In this country, those are obviously things we cannot do."

As was the case in many Eastern European countries at that time, Yugoslavian clubs usually forbade players from transferring until they turned 28, which for Preki wouldn't be until 1991. When former Arsenal defender Bob McNab, head coach of Tacoma in the MISL, came to Belgrade looking for players in 1985, and noticed the amazing skills and tenacity in tight spaces, Preki, 21, sensed his chance had come.

"I wasn't making much of a living and I didn't see a lot of opportunities and I didn't want to wait around until I was 28, so I took it," he said. Because the MISL was not a FIFA-affiliated league, it could sign players regardless of domestic restrictions.

He scored 332 goals and registered 332 assists in seven MISL seasons. He left Tacoma when league officials cut the maximum salary from $90,000 to $72,000, and granted free agency to all players who had been earning more than the lowered maximum. He played briefly in Yugoslavia but came back to the MISL as a free agent, signing with St. Louis, not Tacoma.

When the MISL folded in 1992, he found work at Everton, where Johnston was a teammate and he roomed with Crew head coach Robert Warzycha, who had left Polish club Gornik Zabrze - at age 28 - two years earlier. Preki played two seasons for Everton, scoring four goals in 46 matches, then moved to First Division Portsmouth to play 40 more matches and score five goals.

The Premier League had just been formed and still most of the "foreign" players were from the British nations and the Republic of Ireland, such as Scotsman Johnston and Welsh goalie Neville Southall. Preki and Warzycha were exceptions, yet while the slam-bang style of play didn't offer much opportunity for Preki to display his skills, he learned important lessons he imparts to his players at Chivas USA.

"It took me a while to adjust to the pace and the level and the different ways of playing because in those days, there was not a lot of soccer," he says. "It was long ball and fight for it, not like these days, when almost every Premier team will try to play football. It was a great experience to see that side of the game, the grind, the commitment, guys fighting for each other.

"It was incredible and I try to use it as a coach, because you want guys who are willing to almost die for each other on the field. If you have that, you can be successful, no matter if on the day you can or cannot play good soccer."

FAST START. Chivas started out the 2009 season successfully without playing all that well. Bolstered by Mexican League newcomers Eduardo Lillingston and Mariano Trujillo and some superb goalkeeping by Zach Thornton, Chivas USA raced to the top of the overall standings by winning seven and tying three of its first 11 games despite a half-dozen regulars consigned to the injured list.

"There's not a whole lot of egos and superstars on this team," says midfielder Jesse Marsch.

Ante Razov, Jim Curtin, Thornton and Marsch are veterans of the Chicago expansion team that won the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup the same year Preki played in the World Cup.

"When things are going well," adds Marsch, "no one is really concerned about why it's happening or who's doing well. It's a bunch of guys who like to share what's going on."

Only a few of those injured players - Maykel Galindo, Claudio Suarez, Alecko Eskandarian - had returned to action when Chivas USA opened SuperLiga play in late June, so the emergence of Lillingston as a goalscorer and Trujillo as a dependable right back proved especially timely. Both turn 32 this year and like Suarez, still playing at age 40, set a good example.

"Everybody is impressed by Claudio," says Preki, who led MLS in scoring and won MVP honors at age 40 in 2003. "He comes to play every day, you don't have to think about him or worry about him. We're just hoping some of the younger guys are watching him and what he does.

"And it's not just Claudio, it's Jesse, it's Ante, it's Paulo Nagamura, they come and work every day. Nagamura is not a player you have to tell to work harder because players like him give everything they have. That's just the way it is. Sometimes it's frustrating but then you see someone getting better when you thought maybe it was too late for them. You never know. Some guys are always willing to get better."

Since it joined MLS in 2005, Chivas USA has shed its image as the American incarnation of Mexico's most storied club. It still wears the red-and-white stripes of CD Guadalajara, and features Suarez, Lillingston and Trujillo, but last year it included players from more than a dozen countries. Some of them have moved on, yet players from Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Sierra Leone and even Preki's Belgrade suit up for training every day.

"Our system requires discipline and tactical organization and skill and what we need in the game and what we don't," says Preki, an advocate of minimal risk who usually deploys his team in a 4-4-2 formation. "When your group understands that, it's a lot easier for them to come into the game and understand where you're playing and what's asked of you in that situation.

"If I go into details, it will take us four or five days to talk about, and I don't think you have five days to talk about all the little things we demand of the players every day in every session."

In Preki's first year after taking over from Bob Bradley, he won Coach of the Year honors for leading Chivas USA to the Western Conference title with a 15-7-8 record. Yet a team wracked by injuries couldn't score in the two-leg conference semifinals and Kansas City advanced on a 1-0 aggregate. Last year - another season beset by injury - Chivas USA finished second (12-11-7) and again went home after the first round via a 3-2 aggregate score versus Real Salt Lake.

Those sobering facts and Preki's demanding mindset leave little room for complacency.

"It is a good feeling to be a part of this success but we haven't done anything yet," says Thornton.

(This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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