MLS: Warzycha Keeps Crew Winning

A shaky start to the 2009 season under head coach Robert Warzycha caused some alarm among Crew fans, but a strong second half lifted Columbus atop the overall standings and into a prime position to repeat as league champion.

When a popular and successful head coach moves on, the simple choice can be complicated for the replacement.

In his third year in charge at Columbus, Sigi Schmid guided the Crew to the league's best regular-season record and its first MLS Cup, even as rumors of a pending move to expansion Seattle inexorably grew stronger. The eventual departure last autumn was far from amiable; by exercising a non-compete clause in Schmid's contract, the Crew extracted a $25,000 payment to release him.

To no one's surprise, Robert Warzycha, a Crew assistant coach since his playing days ended in 2002, got the job. Besides a short stint as interim head coach in 2005 when Greg Andrulis was fired, he had no experience as a head coach. He did, though, have more than a decade of history with the team as a player and coach tacked onto a distinguished resume playing in Europe.

"We do not have the same voice," says Warzycha with the Crew atop the overall standings after it recovered from a bumpy start to the 2009 season. "I have a different personality. I get in with the players more, I show them what to do or what I want, so we are a little bit different. But as how we see the game, we are very similar, and I learned a lot from Sigi, because he has so much experience."

In his native Poland, as is the case in most of the world, players are steeped in pro soccer as teenagers. Warzycha is an exception; not until his early 20s did he decide to pursue a professional career, though the talent and competitive drive were always there. The only son of a veterinarian and teacher, Warzycha drifted for a time before finding a calling.

"I was a spoiled kid, I think. I had everything, so it was not difficult for me," says Warzycha, a native of Siemkowice in central Poland. "I didn't know what I was going to end up doing, but I didn't have to go find a job, maybe my life was so easy I didn't decide about going to play soccer. I didn't have to decide what to do."

After playing for a decade in Poland, England, and Hungary, he came to Columbus in 1996 for the startup of MLS, and still holds the Crew all-time assist record of 61. He turned to assistant coaching in 2002 when injuries terminated his career and worked 16 games as an interim head coach in 2005.

By rotating players, and resting playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto and other starters, Warzycha guided the Crew to top spot in MLS and a strong showing in the Concacaf Champions' League.

"As far as I was concerned, he was the only choice to replace Sigi, and I think most of the players felt the same way," says Crew defender Frankie Hejduk, who played against Warzycha early in his career with Tampa Bay. "He hasn't changed things a lot, and why should he?"

PLAYING DAYS. Warzycha grew up during a golden time of Polish soccer, at least in terms of accomplishment. Poland won an Olympic gold medal in 1972 and silver four years later; in between those Olympiads, a disciplined yet creative mix of artisans and workers rolled through the 1974 World Cup to the semifinals, in which it lost to host West Germany, 1-0, on a rain-sodden field in Frankfurt.

The mesmerizing play impressed fans and journalists around the world, captivated the populace, and inspired thousands of young Polish players, including former MLS All-Star and current Philadelphia Union head coach Peter Nowak, but Warzycha, 11 years old at the time, wasn't among them. He lived a comfortable life, and though he liked sport and competition, didn't avidly pursue a professional soccer career, or any career, for that matter.

"I never thought I would make some money playing soccer, to be honest with you," says Warzycha, who still expresses a bit of disbelief when reminded he's been making his living in the game for more than two decades. "Everybody said I was good. Wherever I played I was one of the best players. I just thought something else was more interesting or more fun, going out with my friends, going swimming, instead of playing soccer."

He attended a sports school, intending to play team handball, a rough, popular, and highly professionalized sport in certain European countries. It is also fiercely competitive at the Olympic level. He couldn't hack it.

"When I went to the sports school, I find out right away that I'm too small," he says of his 5-foot-8, 160-pound frame. "People there were much stronger than me. You have to be really big and strong to be able to play that sport. Then I went to another school, a school for construction. So if I didn't play soccer I probably would have been a contractor or something."

He left home at age 20 to serve his mandatory military duty and found time to play some soccer for the Army team. Back home after two years of service without prospects or ambitions, he finally found his start in professional soccer - thanks to a good kick in the rear end.

"Some people from one of the clubs came to my home, and put me in a car, and took me to the club," he says, laughing at the memory of being shanghaied into success and fame. "They told me I was going to train and they wanted to see how I would do. So I trained with the team, they play in the second division, and after six months they gave me a contract with the first team."

Part of Warzycha's puzzlement at his place in life stems from an apparent dichotomy in his personality. He lacked direction, but not determination and will to win. He can't explain how someone who relishes competition could dawdle so long and drift aimlessly in and out of a sport he has embraced so enthusiastically and successfully.

"He always had a good soccer mind and had ideas about what he wanted to do," recalls Brian McBride, who also joined the Crew for the inaugural MLS season. "He had a great ability to pass the ball and bring teammates into the game. He could see the game extremely well and see things before they happened."

The club was Górnik Walbrzych, situated in a nearby town, and after just two seasons he moved to the country's top club, Górnik Zabrze, for which he scored 10 goals in 91 games from 1987 to 1991. He earned his first callup to the national team in 1987 and would score seven goals in 47 internationals, and soon join an exodus of players moving west from Eastern Europe.

As in many Eastern European nations, the Polish federation once prevented its players from moving abroad. Eventually, it relented and adopted an official stance that players could move when they reached the age of 28, but in practice pending deals were often sabotaged by outrageous transfer demands or other subterfuge.

"At that time in the Polish league, they didn't want players to leave," says Warzycha. "After a while, they say they will let you leave when you are 28 but still it was difficult. What players had to do was retire."

That resistance crumbled when transfer fees began spiraling. The move that broke open the shackles came in 1982, when superstar midfielder Zbigniew Boniek, who had led Poland to a third-place finish at the World Cup that year, transferred from Widzew Lodz to Juventus for 1.1 million pounds (approximately $1.93 million) at age 26. Other players found employers in Germany and Italy, and after just a few seasons at Górnik Zabrze, Warzycha became one of the first crop of 12 non-British foreign players to appear in the just-launched English Premier League.

Warzycha spoke little English when he arrived, and Everton assigned him an interpreter extremely eager to please. "This was so funny," says Warzycha, who speaks accented yet easily comprehensible English. "The interpreter would jog with me during warm-ups. He would jog with me, stretch with me, everything. The guy had an incredible job. He went with us in preseason to Switzerland, to the games, everywhere. And the guy was having a blast, because he was an Everton supporter.

"After eight months, I had to do something, so I told the club to spend the money on something besides an interpreter. He was disappointed, but if I was going to be there for three years, I have to pick up some English. You have to."

CREW CALL. He left Everton in 1994 to play in Hungary, where after two seasons he drew the notice of another fledgling operation, Major League Soccer. He took his wife, Eliza, and their three young children on yet another soccer adventure to a land none of them had seen. His introduction to the American game also opened his eyes to the unique sporting nature of his new home.

"It was strange," he recalls of his arrival in Columbus. "We played in a football stadium big enough for 100,000 people. I came straight from the airport to practice, and that day, the team practiced at Ohio State. I went to practice and I go into this huge stadium.

"That was the first year of the league and things were not the way they are now. In Columbus at that time, one day you practice at the stadium, then the next day you practice in a park, then you practice at a high school, and the next day you practice somewhere else.

"But I'm very happy that we are in this situation right now."

The opening of Columbus Crew Stadium in 1999 kicked off a wave of soccer-specific stadiums housing MLS teams, but Waryzcha's affection for the city extends far beyond the field of play.

The sense of community Warzycha felt in Columbus crested in 1998 when his son Bartosz, 8, came off the field during a soccer game crying and complaining of chest pain. The pain subsided by the time the family reached its home; still, on Monday Warzycha took him to the doctor.

"The doctor said to be sure we should take an X-ray," says Warzycha. "As soon as they took the X-ray, he saw the tumor. I didn't know exactly what he was saying but I told my wife and she couldn't believe it. A lot of things happened after this."

Extraction of a cancerous growth, diagnosed as Ewing's Sarcoma, required the removal of four ribs and one-third of a lung. Chemotheraphy and radiation treatments to prevent its return continued for more than a year. Bartosz lost weight and his hair, and during his lengthy stays in the hospital Robert and Eliza would trade off keeping him company, and taking care of his siblings, brother Konrad (who now starts in midfield for Ohio State) and sister Olivia.

More than a decade later, Warzycha's appreciation and gratitude for how the team and the city came to his aid is evident. Fans volunteered their time to shop for food, baby-sit, or run whatever errands needed to be done. They also helped raise more than $60,000 to help pay medical bills, and this year Bartosz, who is taller than his dad at 5-foot-10, entered his sophomore year as a student and soccer player at Marshall University.

"He has a checkup every year or now every two years," says his father. "So far, so good. We are very, very thankful we come to America."

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


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