BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, November 22, 2011
With Bosnian Premier League set to head into the winter break next week, American forward Danijal Brkovic is breaking out for Velez Mostar and is playing the best soccer of his young career.
Brkovic, 20, broke into the starting lineup for Velez Mostar in October after he scored his first professional goal for Velez in a Bosnian Cup match in the game's opening minute. Since then he has become a steady presence for Velez.
"The coach finally gave me a chance," Brkovic told YA from Bosnia. "The first game I played was against Zrinjski and that's where I scored in the first minute. That is where he saw I had the ability to play striker. But I've been doing better in training too. I usually train hard every practice and it's finally paying off. The coach told me I've been doing a good job. He gave me a chance and I've been playing ever since."
Brkovic's momentum carried over into the November international window when he played for Velez in a friendly against fellow Bosnian Premier League club FK Leotar. In the game, Brkovic scored a hat-trick in a 5-2 win.
This past weekend Brkovic saw his solid play reach a new level in a game against Sloboda Tuzla. With Velez ahead 1-0 in the second half, Brkovic found the back of the net for his first ever Premier League goal.
"I went one-on-one with the keeper," Brkovic said of the goal. "The ball was bouncing and I saw the keeper coming out so I just chipped it over him. It's a great feeling scoring your first goal in the Premier League. It was a good goal. I always dreamed of it."
Brkovic turned professional last year after a standout youth career at BC United Fusion and at Johnson City High School in the Binghamton, New York area.
Brkovic had options to stay in the States but he instead elected to tryout with Velez in the city of Mostar where his family is from. His successful trial earned him a professional contract in tail end of 2010.
The past year has been a transformative year for him and he is confident that the professional environment has made him a far superior player now than when he left the United States after high school.
"I think I've improved a lot," Brkovic confidently stated. "In America I played every day but when I got here, I could tell the difference. It's professional. I can feel myself improving and I learn something new every practice. The practices are different in America. Here we are learning how to move on the field."
Velez currently sit in eight place in the Premier Liga and team expectations among both the players and fans are much higher this season than last year where they finished in 13th place in the 16 team league.
Velez's optimistic season, however, was marred by on ugly incident on October 1st when Velez visited arch rival Zrinjski. In the game, Velez scored a go-ahead goal in the 90th minute which enraged Zrinjski fans to the point where it caused dangerous and massive riot.
Following the goal, Zrinjski fans stormed the field to attack the Velez players who then had to sprint off the field to avoid harm. Brkovic did not play in that game but he was on the field.
In the end, all the players were able to escape unharmed but the incident is one Brkovic will never forget.
"That was really scary," Brkovic recalled of the horrific scene. "I've never had anything happen to me before like that and I've never seen anything like that before. They are really big rivals. Seeing [Zrinjski fans] run onto the field was scary. I didn't know where to go. But they opened the gates and all the players ran through and into the locker room.
"We stayed there for an hour and a half until everything cleared up," Brkovic continued. "Then later, we got onto the bus. While we were heading back home they were waiting for us on the streets and throwing rocks at us. I don't think it's going to happen much anymore. The police are stricter now."
Brkovic and Velez will visit Branitelj Mostar on Wednesday in the second leg of their Bosnian Cup match in which Velez carry a 2-0 lead. On Sunday they will travel to take on GOSK Gabela in their final match before the winter break.
Brkovic is scheduled to head back to Binghamton next week and he will train there every day before returning to Velez in mid January. The second half of the season won't resume until mid March.
Brkovic's success has also opened the door to questions as to where his international future lies. He was born in war-torn Dubrovnik in the former Yugoslavia but he moved to the United States when he was only nine years old in 2000.
Brkovic became an American citizen three years ago but still holds citizenship with Bosnia. He is still yet to represent any country internationally at any level.
While he is not frequently asked about his international future by the American media, it has come up in Bosnia where his success has put him into contention for a possible callup to the Bosnian U21 team.
Brkovic is unsure of which country he would prefer to represent but he does admit that the door to playing for the United States is certainly not closed and that a callup to the US U23 team would "mean a lot."
For now, he is simply focused on continuing his recent improvement at Velez and earning a contract extension with the club. Eventually, however, he wants to move to the elite leagues in Europe.
"I always dreamed about playing in a bigger club," Brkovic concluded. "I'm focused on playing for Velez right now. After my contract runs out I hope to extend it. I think it's a great experience playing over here. You learn a lot. I'm still young and I want to get my experience up first. After that, I hope to go up to a bigger club."