With every passing week, every round of games in the German Bundesliga and every fresh headline in the German press, the United States moves a step closer to losing a player who looks destined to become a defensive superstar.
Neven Subotic played for both the U.S. under-17 and under-20 national teams, yet the chances of him suiting up for the senior men's side are fading rapidly into oblivion.
The combination of a difference of opinion, some poor timing (for the U.S. at least) and a loophole in the FIFA regulations are expected to conspire to remove any hopes of seeing the 19-year-old perform for Bob Bradley's team.
Subotic remains fiercely tight-lipped on the issue, and the silence has sparked heated discussion among U.S. soccer fans. With Giuseppe Rossi (raised in New Jersey) having pledged himself to Italy and Edgar Castillo (born and bred in New Mexico) to Mexico, the prospect of losing another potential world-class talent is unpalatable. However, given the unusual situation regarding the heritage of Subotic, it seems that is exactly how it is going to pan out.
The Borussia Dortmund star has until his 21st birthday in December 2009 to decide where his international future lies, yet all signs currently point toward Germany. Sources close to Subotic told Yahoo! Sports that his primary desire is to play for Germany after being told he has approval for citizenship and a passport.
Subotic was born in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Serbian parents. The family moved to Germany two years later and was permitted to stay under a refugee program as the Balkan conflict escalated.
In 1999, the Subotic family relocated again – to America – in search of work and a better life. After being noticed while playing in a local league, Subotic was brought into the national under-17 setup and was in the side for the Under-17 World Cup three years ago.
Things started to deteriorate in the under-20 system, though, when a falling out with coach Thomas Rongen led to Subotic being left out of the World Cup for that age group two years ago. Rongen publicly criticized Subotic, a move which seems to have hardened the player's desire not to represent the U.S. at the senior level.
"He has not accelerated over there to the point where we feel he belongs on the team," Rongen told ESPN.com at the time. "He's not there yet, and we need to move on and check out players that can do the job."
Whether or not that snub fuelled Subotic's motivation, the facts speak for themselves. Last season with Mainz, he was named the best defender in the German second division and was bought by Dortmund in a transfer worth more than $5 million.
He is a player with the sort of size (6-foot-4), strength and ball-playing ability that the U.S. could certainly use. In Bundesliga action, he has put in good displays against some of Europe's finest strikers and also shown himself to be dangerous on set plays.
Italian striker Luca Toni, who has twice faced Subotic this season, has been impressed with the youngster.
"He is stronger than he looks and his sense of timing is good," the Bayern Munich star said. "His tactical awareness is rare for someone so young and I'm sure he will be a high-level player for many years."
"We have been very pleased with his play for Dortmund," Borussia coach Jurgen Klopp said. "This is what we had in mind for him when he was signed.
"The most pleasing thing has been his consistency. He keeps performing well for us and you can sense he is growing in confidence all the time as he competes with the best players in Germany."
Subotic's efforts with Mainz last season and in the early part of the new European campaign have led to renewed conjecture that he could be eligible for the German side.
Normally, Subotic would not be allowed to play for the Germans as he had not requested German citizenship at the time he played for the U.S. at underage level. However, an appeal to FIFA is assured and, with the weight of the German federation behind him, would be likely to succeed.
Playing for the U.S. appears to be a long way away from Subotic's thoughts. Bradley tried to call him up for a recent training camp and was rebuffed, with Subotic preferring to concentrate on his club soccer – hardly the actions of a player with long-term aspirations of wearing the red, white and blue.
Germany is now home for Subotic and he has immersed himself into life in Europe.
His relationship with pole vaulter Lisa Ryzih has further catapulted him into the spotlight. The pair has become one of Germany's most glamorous sporting couples and regularly appears in the gossip columns of the tabloid press.
Even if Subotic is deemed ineligible to play for Germany, he could be allowed to play for Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Croatia. As for the U.S., the prospect of regular lengthy flights to and from America would hold little appeal for Subotic, whose top priority is to establish himself as one of the Bundesliga's leading defenders.
For the U.S., the issue of losing players with mixed heritage is a worrying trend with little in the way of a proper solution. A positive step was made last week when Texas-born Jose Francisco Torres of Pachuca decided to commit to America despite spending the last five years in Mexico. However, if teenagers go to Europe to further their careers, chances are they will feel at home there by the time they are developed enough to be considered for the national team.
Bradley did all he could by trying to bring Subotic into camp, but there was little more he or U.S. Soccer could do.
If Subotic emerges into the kind of player that his current progress suggests, then his performances in major tournaments could serve as a constant and painful reminder to the U.S. of what might have been. But he is not the first and, sadly, almost certainly not the last to follow a similar path.
- Neven Subotic