BRIAN SCIARETTA - Thursday, September 30, 2010
With the 2010-2011 Israeli Premier League season underway, Maccabi Netanya FC has emerged as the team that could be a surprising contender after an impressive start.
Maccabi Netanya is built around a core of talented young players mixed in with established veterans.
One of the players that the club will rely on to provide experienced leadership is American central defender Leo Krupnik who has been encouraged by what he has seen from his teammates thus far.
"Yeah, I'm sure a lot of people are surprised at our start," Krupnik told YA. "We have a very young team, but there's a lot of potential and a lot of hard work from the guys right now. While in Hungary for pre-season, I saw that this could be something special."
Through the first three games of the season, Maccabi Netanya is 2-0-1 with seven points. Including cup matches, the club has not lost in five games with a road draw to Bnei Sakhnin serving as the only blemish.
Despite the impressive start, Krupnik still remains cautiously optimistic.
"I'm not really setting any goals," Krupnik said frankly. "I'm just taking a game at a time. We have a very, very young team and we don't have too much depth. We have good players also on the bench, but it's still a young team. So far, so good, but we just have to keep working hard. After the first round, I'll know more."
Krupnik, 31, arrived at Maccabi Netanya in January after transferring from MLS where he played for only a few months with the New York Red Bulls.
After having been an established player in Israel since 2005, Krupnik reached a high point during the 2008-2009 season when he signed for perennial Israeli power Maccabi Haifa.
During that season, he played more minutes than any other player on the team and played a large role in leading the team to a league title.
"It was the best thing," Krupnik said of the championship season. "That year, I gave up a lot of money to go to Haifa. I had a lot more bigger offers from other clubs, and I chose to go to Haifa. It was definitely worth it because I won the championship. Not many players can say that."
Despite being a regular starter for Haifa, he parted ways with the club and accepted an offer to return to the US and play for the Red Bulls in MLS.
In New Jersey, Krupnik found himself on a team mired in internal dysfunction with one of the worst records in league history. After playing just three MLS games, he returned to Israel.
"Yeah, it seems like I made a bad move by going there," Krupnik recalled. "I came in a situation where they lost 13 or 15 games in a row, and it was a lose-lose situation. My dream was to play in the MLS and make good money playing there, and that I accomplished, I guess. But I came in a very bad situation, just couldn't get along there."
"But I said for me and my family it was better to come back," he continued. "My coach in Israel right now, Reuven Atar, he really pushed me to come back and I figured that I'd rather go somewhere where I'm really wanted."
Krupnik's development as a player was very different when compared with most other American players. He was born in the Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union and it was there, behind the Iron Curtain, where he learned to play the game.
"Basically, I grew up doing gymnastics, from the age of five to ten, and it was a military style type of thing. But I always played soccer and I always liked it. Finally a coach from a local team saw me and invited me to play. I was given the impression that they liked me. I was always being pushed up to older kids' groups. But at the age of 12, I immigrated to the US with my family."
Despite moving to the US, Krupnik was able to maintain continuity in his development and playing style because his coach in the Ukraine, who was connected to Krupnik's family, also left the USSR for the Bay Area.
"Luckily I found a club in San Francisco, the San Francisco Vikings, and actually my my brother's ex father in law was my soccer coach in Ukraine, and then he became a soccer coach in San Francisco as well. So he's the one who developed me really."
Krupnik would stay in the San Francisco area and eventually attend the University of California-Berkeley where he would play for four years and become an American citizen during his time there.
The professional style atmosphere he had while growing up in the USSR and in the US carried over to his approach in college and he felt that set him apart from others.
"Well, I always had a passion to play, and I always took care of my body, and I always ate right, and I always did everything in the most correct way I would say," Krupnik discussed. " Now, most of the college players say ‘I'm also a student' and then soccer becomes more of a second thing. For me, soccer was number one always."
Following college, Krupnik was drafted by the Metrostars but would see no first team action. Instead he would play in the USL where he would star with the Wilmington Hammerheads and Charleston Battery before he headed to play in Israel.
"I had a little shot in MLS out of college in New York," Krupnik said of his initial time in the domestic league. "I didn't get a chance to play, but I always felt that I was better than guys but was just not given the chance."
Despite things not having worked out in his two brief stints in MLS, Krupnik has thrived in Israel where he is currently in his sixth season.
His current contract runs through the end of the season and he is open to all possibilities afterward, whether it be staying in Israel or exploring another return to MLS.
Krupnik also very much wants to stay involved in the game in the US whenever he decides to retire from playing.
Having experienced both the traditional path of NCAA soccer and MLS that most American players take as well as serious European soccer, Krupnik feels that he will be able to address the shortcomings currently found in US player development.
"MLS is a very physical league," Krupnik said frankly. "The Israeli league is different because it's basically like Europe. Guys grow up playing [soccer] at a high level and they're growing up themselves in a professional environment, they're playing about 11 months out of the year."
"In MLS they're still young guys who come out of college and get thrown in," he continued. "They have to learn for a couple of years how to become professional. I don't think you can compare 18 and 19 year olds, even in Israel, to US players."
Krupnik strongly feels that the US has to move away from the college game and try to get promising players into professional environments at an early age and avoid college
"I think the US must develop their youth system from the beginning," Krupnik explained. "Where they see a young player at 16 who is ready then they can just bring him up into the professional ranks. Or the teams can develop youth players and then sell them off to either the European teams or MLS clubs. But there's no way that college can develop at a rate where a professional environment can."
"College soccer is great and unique thinig in America," he added. "But to further develop [soccer] in America there needs to be a better youth development and a link from professional teams to youth. My college coach is still the best coach I have had from college untill now."
Krupnik is sure however that eventually he wants to be part of the changes that he sees as being necessary to improve US soccer.
"I definitely want to stay in [soccer] after I'm done playing," Krupnik concluded. "Whether coaching or whether it is in some sort of administration position, I would love to come back to the US and be part of some sort of a group, or some sort of a youth development - even MLS. I would love to see the game succeed in the US."