The perseverance of Preki

Martin Rogers

CARSON, Calif. – Chivas USA head coach Preki likes to do things a bit differently.

Like when he arrived in the United States 22 years ago with nothing more than the clothes on his back, a handful of dollars in his pocket and a bag the size of a woman's purse containing a few personal effects.

Like when he completed a move to English Premier League club Everton in the mid-1990s despite having spent the previous seven years playing indoor soccer.

And like when he transformed Chivas, which had its performances range from appalling to average in its first two seasons of existence, and took it to the top of the Western Conference standings in the course of seven months.

Preki (full name: Predrag Radosavljevic) had to quickly learn to roll with the punches when he came to the U.S. as a precociously talented but nave 22-year-old out of Belgrade.

Due to regulations in place in his native Yugoslavia at the time, he was not allowed to transfer to another FIFA-sanctioned league, leaving an indoor contract with the Tacoma Stars of the newly formed Major Indoor Soccer League as his only viable option to make some proper money.


Chivas USA

2007 RECORD:
15-7-8 (53 points), first in Western Conference, second overall. Lost to Kansas City in Western Conference semifinals.

KEY MAN: Maykel Galindo. The Cuban striker was outstanding last season and will need to produce again if Chivas is to repeat its 2007 regular-season achievements. His pace and finishing touch puts him among the elite strikers in MLS.

NEWCOMER: Jorge Flores. The 18-year-old winner of the Sueno MLS reality TV show is developing well as a left-sided defender or midfielder. He should be in contention for greatly increased playing time in 2008.

OUTLOOK: Considering Chivas's wage bill (the lowest in the league), last season's acomplishments were nothing short of remarkable. It will be tough to match that sort of level again, but Preki seems to have the knack of getting the most out of his players. The addition of Raphael Wicky and Atiba Harris should add some spark.

Remarkable as it seems, his wages at leading Serbian club Red Star Belgrade were minimal – as rules forbidding players under the age of 28 to accept contracts elsewhere in Europe meant clubs could effectively pay whatever they liked.

"I was not starving or anything like that," said Preki while in his office at the Home Depot Center. "But I really didn't have a lot.

"That's why I didn't bother taking anything with me when I left. I figured it was a new start in every way. When Bob picked me up at the airport, he asked me, 'Where are all your things?' and he couldn't believe when I told him that was all I had."

Bob was Bob McNab, a former star of the Arsenal team that won both the English league title and the FA Cup in 1971, and was then head coach of the Stars. McNab had been instrumental in Preki's relocation from Europe, having spotted him during an indoor tournament in Belgrade months earlier.

Preki was quickly embraced into the McNab family and credits his mentor and friend with his development as a player and his coaching ethos. Yet even so, his early months in a new country were far from easy.

"I didn't really know anybody and I couldn't speak the language," he said. "Financially I was better off, but even then the game was different because my whole life in soccer before then had been on grass and that was in my heart."

However, it would be another seven years before he played professionally on his preferred surface again. He tries to take a philosophical approach when asked if he regrets losing so many of his peak years to the indoor game – "that's life and things happen for a reason" – but you sense there must have been countless moments when he has wondered what might have been.

It takes a special blend of innate talent and fearsome desire to spend such a long time playing what is effectively a different sport and then still reach an impressive level upon returning to your natural game.

Preki represented the United States in the 1998 World Cup following his stint in England with Everton and Portsmouth, and he is still the only player to have been named MLS MVP and scoring champion twice.

All but one year of his MLS career was spent with the Kansas City Wizards, who he took to the championship in 2000. His final game came in 2005, at the age of 42, when he switched immediately to coaching as Bob Bradley's assistant at Chivas. He stepped into the main role once Bradley took the U.S. national team job.

Yet those who expected Chivas to mirror Preki's own playing style, which was based around flair and creativity, have been surprised. Chivas is by no means boring to watch, but Preki works tirelessly with his defenders and places a high value on organization and efficiency.

"When I got into coaching, a lot of people thought I would just be interested in going forward," he said with a wry smile. "I am very different to that and I understand that everything starts with good defensive discipline."

That defense held firm in 2007. Chivas became one of only two MLS teams to concede less than a goal per game during the regular season, letting in only eight in 15 home matches.

Untimely injuries to key strikers Maykel Galindo and Ante Razov were a factor in the team's playoff aspirations ending with a first-round defeat to the Wizards, but more is expected of the club this time around.

"I think we are deeper," Preki said. "But it is hard to predict what will happen. We can plan all we want but you know things will come up that you didn't expect and you have to adapt. It is always the case.

"Life has taught me that."