BRENT LATHAM - Thursday, January 1, 2009
The news that Borussia Dortmund defender Neven Subotic has chosen to play for Serbia came as little surprise to those close to the situation.
Subotic has rebuffed continued overtures from the USSF ever since Under-20 coach Thomas Rongen decided to criticize Subotic on top of dropping him from the Under 20 squad that made the quarterfinals in Canada in 2007.
So when Subotic finally wrote US soccer to tell them he had chosen the nation of his cultural heritage over his adopted homeland, the announcement provoked more self-evaluation than shock.
What went wrong, and when, will be a subject for debate for years to come, especially if Subotic, who just turned 20, continues on the fast track to stardom. All signs indicate that he will, which will in turn be a thorn in the side of US soccer fans for years to come.
Compared to the fervor over previous defections, especially the other highest profile case of Italian-American forward Giuseppe Rossi, the Subotic decision has been met with equanimity. But, in many ways, losing Subotic is much harder to swallow.
While Rossi was born in the US, his Italian father moved him to Italy in his teens to train there. He signed a professional contract in Italy, always wanted to play for the Azzurri, and is largely a product of the Italian soccer system.
Subotic's career, on the other hand, is a largely American story.
His family moved from war torn Bosnia to Germany, then on to the US (when Germany kicked them out) when he was still in his formative years. Subotic, unlike his teammates on the 2005 U-17 quarterfinalists, was not a blue chip youth prospect, but rather was plucked from the parks of Bradenton, where his family moved so his sister could pursue a tennis career, and melded into the squad that finished as quarterfinalists in Peru.
That 2005 tournament in Peru was a coming of age for Subotic, and soon after he impressed in a trial for Mainz, he was on his way from South Florida to Germany. The rest is history.
Sufficed to say Subotic, arguably, has developed into an international star at a faster pace than any field player in US history, with perhaps the exception of Rossi. But the fact that Subotic would never have reached his potential so quickly without the help of the USSF makes this situation much more difficult to swallow.
The fact is, whether fans are willing to admit it or not, the US could use Subotic over the long term, just as it could have used Rossi, or New Mexico native and Mexican international Edgar Castillo.
It could be argued that those three represent more than 25% of the would-be US starting line-up for the 2010 World Cup. Even if you think Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra are superior players at this point, it is impossible to argue that Subotic would not have been among the most important figures in the squad over the next decade.
There is little evidence that the US will soon produce more players of Subotic's quality. The US' next best young central defender is Chad Marshall, who is not only nearly five years older than Subotic, but by comparison recently tried out for the role he vacated at Mainz, and was not offered a contract.
Maryland product Omar Gonzalez is on everyone's radar screen as he heads for MLS, but he is still raw, and was on the U-17 team in 2005 with Subotic, which gives a sense of their relative achievement thus far.
All this understandably makes many American fans furious, and the easy way out is to blame Subotic or Thomas Rongen.
Until Subotic decides to speak to the media about his decision, something he has steadfastly refused to do, we can only speculate about why he chose Serbia, a country for which he will still have to solicit a passport (he has never lived there).
A few months ago, I wrote generally about why dual national Americans would choose to play for another country. A primary reason would be fame in the other country, and Subotic promises to become a very famous Serb. But, in this case, I don't think that was his primary motivation.
In Peru in 2005, I had the chance to sit down with Neven at length for a story I wrote for YA about the team. The story was about the diversity of heritage of the members of that team, whose parents came from over a dozen different countries.
Despite that diversity, the team appeared to be unified, but Subotic was a bit more of a loner. He also struck me as a principled, intelligent, straight-forward young man who was very proud, perhaps more than the other players, to represent the United States, and not afraid to say so.
Neven was frustrated only when some of his Latino teammates spoke to each other in Spanish. He explained that he and others felt excluded. Perhaps Neven longed more than the others for a sense of belonging, after having been uprooted so many times as a youth.
It did look like he had found that in his American teammates. After the final match for the team at that tournament, a disappointing 2-0 loss to Holland in which the US suffered from horrendous officiating and Subotic saw a second half red card, the defender intimated that he felt the referee was “anti-American.” To me, that indicated a strong sense of identity with the stars and stripes.
Subotic seemed in many ways to be, in essence, a typical American teenager, apart from his proficiency in the beautiful game. Given that, combined with his words a few years ago that playing for another national team would, to him, amount to being a traitor, I was surprised to see Subotic give up his US jersey.
I am sure Neven Subotic still feels a strong loyalty to America, and would have liked to join the team. When Rongen cut him from the U-20 squad, it was an opening for others, perhaps his family included, to convince him to renounce that loyalty in favor of their heritage. And being cut was probably a deeper blow than many realized at the time.
When Rongen cut Subotic from the U-20 team, he also, unknowingly, separated him from a group to which he felt a deep sense of belonging. And he cut Neven's strongest tie to America.
That is a shame on a personal level, but in soccer there is little room for hurt feelings. It is especially a shame considering the mediocre defenders that were on that U-20 roster, and how far behind Subotic they are in their development.
It would seem, though, that the experience has made Subotic a better soccer player in the end, even if that was, in many senses, at the expense of the USSF. At this point, the only reasonable option for the USSF is to try to avoid letting this happen again.
On the American side, it does look as if the USSF has learned from this error, as egregious and harmful as it may be, given their perhaps premature efforts to call in Francisco Torres.
In the meantime, the USSF, and Rongen himself, continue to look far and wide for players with potential and American roots, who might one day develop into a Premier League or Bundesliga defender. Every U-20 roster these days seems to produce a new unknown from the depths of some European team's roster. Perhaps in the future it would be best to start with the guys already on the team.