21215_supplied_nermincrnkic Photo courtesy Nermin Crnkic
Americans Abroad

Soccer in Eastern Europe Lures Adventurous Yanks

Culture shock. Language issues. Small crowds. The occasional missing paycheck. Playing professional soccer in Eastern Europe is anything but glamorous, but some Americans seek success there anyway.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 12, 2015
9:37 AM
WHEN AMERICAN SOCCER PLAYERS MOVE abroad, usually it's to compete in traditional Western European or Scandinavian leagues. Making a move to Eastern Europe is unusual and most Americans who have moved there have found little success for a variety of reasons.

Lately, however, that has been changing.

The leagues in Eastern Europe are typically thought of as chaotic and top heavy, with a steep drop-off between the top few teams and the rest of the league. Low pay, low attendance, and sometimes the struggle to even get paid have made Eastern Europe unattractive to many American players.

Still, the success stories recently have bucked the trend. The top teams from Eastern Europe, including FC BATE Borisov, Dynamo Kiev, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Shakhtar Donetsk, have all found success in European competitions. But at most clubs, playing in this area of the world is particularly challenging—so when Americans find success in the region it is particularly impressive.

Nermin Crnkic, 22, has been in the Czech Liga since 2013 and has quietly been making a name for himself as a talented winger with Jablonec. Last season while on loan with Znojmo, one prominent Czech publication named him the fastest player in the country’s top league.

Right now, Jablonec is in third place and will start the second half of its season on February 20. The club is currently taking part in the Atlantic Cup as part of its preparations; last Wednesday Crnkic scored in a 2-0 win over FC Copenhagen.

Crnkic was born in Bosnia but lived in Germany as a young player. Eventually he moved with his family to the United States where he naturalized to become a citizen. Despite his European background, the move to the Czech Republic was not easy.

“Making the move to the Czech was a bit different because of the style of play and it's physical and its up tempo game,” Crnkic told American Soccer Now. “Off the field was hard for me too because it's only football and home—nothing else. No friends and no family around so it was bit hard at first but after a while I got used to it.”

FK Teplice currently sits in sixth place in the Czech Liga and in 2013 the club took the unprecedented step of revealing its player’s salaries. It was a highly unusual step for a Czech club and the numbers show how far the sport can be from the glamorous life in the major leagues. Young players on the senior squad made the equivalent of $518 per month; older first-team players earned about $1,828 per month. Prominent stars tend to fall in the $3,656 - $4,570 per month range.

Crnkic admits that he plays in the Czech Liga both for the love of the game and because he sees it as a stepping stone to another league. The fact that his club is now in a strong position to qualify for at least the Europa League and possibly the Champions League qualifiers next year is a major source of motivation.

In January, Fafa Picault, 23, used his 12-goal season with NASL’s Ft. Lauderdale Strikers to secure a move to Sparta Prague—currently second in the Czech Liga. Picault joined Crnkic as the second American in the Czech Liga. Crnkic hopes it becomes a pattern with more Americans considering the league.

“The football in the Czech Liga will go up I think because more teams are playing in the Europa League and the Champion League,” Crnkic said. “I do think [Americans] should pay more attention to the league. It's not bad.”

The challenges off the field are still tough for Crnkic, who remains open to a return to playing in the United States. In 2012 he played for the Michigan Bucks of the PDL and made headlines when he scored an extra-time winner to eliminate the Chicago Fire from the U.S. Open Cup. He didn’t secure a MLS deal at the time but his success in Europe could change that.

“Yes it gets to me sometimes,” Crnkic said of the homesickness. “It was hard at first but every time I get a chance to go home for break I get that feeling where I don't want to go back to Europe. But it's life and it's my career so I'm willing to do anything for soccer.

"This winter break I had some options to play in MLS but my club didn't let me go so I think I will wait out my contract and try again. I don't think it will be hard to find a club in MLS because some of the clubs already know of me.”

The experiences are similar for Danijal Brkovic, 23, who has been playing in the Bosnian Premier League since 2010. Born in Dubrovnik during the height of the Yugoslavian civil war, Brkovic eventually moved to Johnson City, N.Y, with his family and later became an American citizen. Following a successful high school career he elected to bypass college and turn professional. Making use of his Bosnian passport, he latched on to FK Velez in Mostar, Bosnia.

“The biggest challenge on the field was getting used to the type of game play,” Brkovic said. “Even though the Bosnian Premier League is not very popular in Europe, there are a lot of skillful players. Even with the skillful players, the league is all about running and physical strength.”

Brkovic is now in his fifth season in the Bosnian Premier League and shares the same ambitions that most of the players in the league have—to move to a better league.

As a winger and a forward, Brkovic has is considered one of the better attackers in the league and has five goals in 14 games this season for the club he joined last summer, Olimpic Sarajevo. Olimpic is currently in fourth place but the standings remain tight and only four points separate it from first place.

Brkovic isn't sure where he goes from here. He enjoys Bosnia but earlier this season Olimpic played home games in front of fewer than 100 people. He says that an opportunity to play back in the United States would be “very interesting” and a “whole new level” but for now, he is focused on Bosnia and Europe.

“The crowds are pretty small unless it is a derby match,” Brkovic said. “Moneywise you can make a living out here but you can’t get rich. Most of the players in the Bosnain League are playing because they want to get scouted and move on to a better league out of Bosnia.”

“If the war never happened in the early 90s everything would be different and would be much more organized,” he added ruefully.

OF ALL THE AMERICANS in Eastern Europe, Cesar Romero is putting up the most impressive numbers. In 14 league appearances with FC Pyunik of the Armenian Premier League, Romero has registered 17 goals. In all competitions, he has 19 goals in 16 appearances, and he is running away with the scoring title.

Romero, 25, is a native of Chula Vista, Calif., and spent time with U.S. youth national teams during his teenage years. He played in MLS for Chivas USA in 2012 but moved to Germany following that season. He then moved to Armenia because his agent convinced him that he would be among the very best players in the league and would get noticed with his standout play—even in Armenia.

With the numbers he has put up this season, Romero has surpassed even his agent’s expectations. For Romero, the secret to the success has been not trying to blend in but rather just playing his game despite the different styles of the league.

“A lot of people underestimate this league,” Romero said. “But you know what? It’s not as easy as you think. There are a lot of players that have come here from around the world like Russia, Ukraine, Greece and they don’t stay. It’s not an easy league. There are a lot of young guys. It’s physical. There is a lot of running more than technique.

“I wish that more people in this country were involved but it’s a small league. People don’t’ really follow soccer as much but I will tell you what—these kids that I play with and against, they fight to the last minute of the game. It’s good and it’s sad to hear people underestimate the league because there are good players.”

Even with the likelihood that Pyunik will play in Europa League qualifiers starting in the summer, Romero hopes to leave Armenia after the season and return Germany.

“Coming in, my mentality was to do my best this season and try to get out of here as soon as possible,” Romero said. “Not because it’s a bad league but because you are trying to grow as a soccer player. This is a stepping stone. That’s what I’ve been working on since I got here—to grow as a player.

"I’m 25 but I still have a lot to learn and I still have a lot of room to keep growing.”

In recent years the only American to receive a U.S. national team while playing with an Eastern European club was Eugene Starikov, who was named to the 2009 January camp while playing for Tom Tomsk in the Russian Premier League. Starikov was not even named to the matchday squad in the 1-1 draw with Chile that month.

JEMAL JOHNSON CURRENTLY plays for Jacksonville Armada in the NASL but the 29-year-old Paterson, N.J., native has forged an interesting career path. He joined Manchester United’s academy as a teenager but then left to join Blackburn where he made his professional debut in the Premier League during the 2004-2005 season. After a career in England that saw him play for clubs like Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leeds United, Milton Keynes Dons, and Stockport County, Johnson decided to move to Lokomotiv Sofia—a perennial top team in Bulgaria’s top league.

Johnson recalls that the standard of play in Bulgaria was high, the fans were passionate, and he enjoyed his time there. But there were problems. He struggled to communicate with his coach and the nature of the league structure was chaotic with club presidents often acting on their own with no coordination with the governing body. It was a far cry from England’s firm structure under the FA.

He added that while attendance in Sofia derby games would be high and the atmosphere would be intense, when Lokomotiv played on the road against smaller teams, the crowds ranged between 200-500 people and winters were a particularly tough time for both players and spectators.

For Johnson, however, the problems ran a bit deeper.

“There are two or three teams from nearly every Eastern European country which sort of keep that high level,” Johnson said. “That’s why some people make the decision to go to those places—more for the money than the quality of play.

“For me, when I went to Lokomotiv Sofia, it wasn’t really for the money. I thought it was going to be a good situation for myself because they were always a top-four team in that league. I thought it was an opportunity for myself to play in the Europa League...but I had a few issues with getting paid. A few of the other good players on my team did as well.

"So it was a situation which I sort of had to get myself out of.”

Johnson’s story is all too familiar for players in Eastern Europe who play outside of the few glamour clubs.

“They love their football so much,” Johnson said. “It would be great if there was some sort of organization which they can stick to. But it’s sort of run by the [club] presidents and they’re not in contact with their football association. It’s difficult.”

So what is the future for Americans in Eastern Europe? It is impossible to say.

It is still a difficult place to adjust to—both on and off the field and off. And with more options existing for professional soccer in the United States, its appeal as a soccer destination could decline. That said, the lure of European soccer will always be attractive to some highly motivated Yanks.

So perhaps the current success by a few American players isn’t such an anomaly after all.

“It’s a blessing to be able to play professional soccer,” Cesar Romero said. “Even if it is in Armenia or any league.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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