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Jul 29, 2008

Subotic's international future still undetermined

For months, American soccer fans have been waiting anxiously for Neven Subotic to make a decision about his international future. A talented defender with tremendous upside, Subotic is one of those players whose heritage and nomadic upbringing make him eligible for numerous national teams, including the United States. But after promising on his Web site that he would make a decision this summer, it now appears that fans will have to wait a while longer to see where Subotic's international allegiance lies.

Subotic completed a $5.4 million transfer to Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund in June, and as such, he's intent on validating the team's investment in him.

"Right now, with my move to Dortmund, it looks like I will first make any kind of decision regarding national teams after my first season here," said Subotic via e-mail. "It's already tough enough to fight for a starting spot here, and I don't need any extra baggage at this early point in my career."

U.S. coach Bob Bradley refused to take any questions regarding Subotic's situation, saying through a spokesman that he didn't have anything to add beyond what had already been reported. But it's common knowledge that in the wake of losing players like Giuseppe Rossi and Edgar Castillo to other countries in the last year, the U.S. is highly desirous of Subotic's services. At 6-foot-4, Subotic's size and dominant aerial ability led him to be named the top defender in Germany's second division last season with FSV Mainz 05, and there is plenty more to his game than just physicality.

"Subotic has got the mentality, he's got the desire, and he's got really good feet for a player of his size," said current U.S. assistant coach John Hackworth, who as an assistant with the U-17 national team first brought Subotic into the U.S. system. "Technically, he's a good passer of the ball, he can receive it, and he's got good range on his passing."

It's those latter traits that have piqued the interest of American coaches. And according to a source close to Subotic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it's what led Bradley to call the young defender into a training camp just prior to a friendly against Switzerland last October. But Subotic rejected those advances, claiming he was unfit to play, and later asked that he not be invited to anymore camps, stating that he preferred to focus on his club commitments.

While remaining in the good graces of Mainz was certainly a factor in his decision, the cultural tug-of-war over Subotic likely played a significant role as well. Born on Dec. 10, 1988 in the town of Banja Luka in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, Subotic's Serbian family moved to Germany in 1990. When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, his family was granted refugee status, but when Subotic's father, Zeljko, lost his right to work in Germany in 1999, the family had a choice: move back to Bosnia or immigrate to the United States. Given that Bosnia was still recovering from the war, they decided to head stateside.

The family initially settled in Salt Lake City, but in an effort to advance the tennis career of their daughter, Natalija, the family relocated once again to Bradenton, Fla. so that she could enroll in the famed Bollettieri Tennis Academy. It was at that point that Natalija's younger sibling fell right into the lap of U.S. Soccer, and caught the eye of Hackworth.

"[Subotic] was just playing in a local park in Bradenton," said Hackworth. "Myself and Keith Fulk -- another assistant with the U-17s -- just happened to be training a group of kids. We see him, and got to talking with him and asking 'Where are you from?' and we got to know his whole story."

Hackworth immediately brought Subotic in to train with the U-17 national team, and after obtaining his U.S. citizenship, the young defender impressed enough to join the team at the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru.

Subotic was later brought into the U.S. U-20 national team under Thomas Rongen but was left off the side that performed at the 2007 U-20 World Cup held in Canada. That decision has resulted in Rongen receiving a fair amount of criticism. At issue were some critical comments he made to ESPN.com about Subotic following a friendly in November of 2006. Rongen stated that Subotic, who had signed for Mainz several months earlier, had "not accelerated over there to the point where we feel he belongs on the [U.S.] team."

There has been considerable speculation since then that Subotic was so stung by Rongen's criticism that he decided to reconsider his international future, with Rongen insisting that a groin injury was to blame.

"Leaving him off the squad was clearly injury related and had nothing to do with Neven Subotic, because I thought he was a good enough player to make our team and probably good enough to maybe even start," said Rongen.

Subotic's recollection of events is a bit different. While Subotic didn't directly address the impact the criticism had on his thought process, it's clear that the snub did little to endear him to Rongen, or the U.S. national team program.

"Well, Rongen certainly said some discouraging and false things about me," said Subotic. "Never in my life have I heard that a high level coach publicly criticizes a player. Professional coaches do that one-on-one with the player.

"I find this disappointing, because a few months later after Rongen said I was not good enough for the U-20s, I played a very good season and started getting calls from various countries [U.S. included] for the full men's team. I still don't know what he saw in the other players, and what he didn't see in me."

So where does this leave Subotic? What's known is that he can represent the U.S., as well as any country from the former Yugoslavia, although due to his ethnicity, Serbia is likely the only nation from that group that is in contention. That said, when asked what countries he was considering besides the U.S., Subotic replied, "I'm not at liberty to say."

Then there is the matter of Germany. Article 18 of FIFA's rules on national team eligibility state that once a player has appeared for a national side, they may switch allegiances one time prior to age 21, provided the player didn't appear in a senior "A" international such as a World Cup qualifier. The list of available countries a player can switch to is also limited to those where the player was already a citizen when he first suited up internationally.

An article published by Kicker in November, 2007 indicated that since Subotic was not officially a German citizen when he first appeared for the U.S. U-17s, there is no chance of him ever appearing for Germany. (An attempt to conform this with the German Football Federation proved unsuccessful.) But a source close to Subotic stated that the player could end up playing for Germany "on a technicality." Apparently Subotic's nine-year stint in the country as a child satisfies the residency requirement, and as the source put it, "You don't apply for citizenship when you're 11."

The question of Subotic's status in Germany is significant in that he has stated in prior interviews that Germany is where he feels most at home, and that is why he ultimately decided to ply his trade there.

But even if Subotic is denied the opportunity to play for Germany, the U.S. will receive some stiff competition from Serbia, despite the fact that the Serbs -- with the likes of Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic at their disposal -- appear to be loaded at center back.

"The culture where [Subotic] came from, they are very proud people," said Hackworth. "And I think that heritage that he has, to him that means something. But I also know that he's very proud of what he accomplished within the U.S. national team as a youth player, and that it's right now a tough decision for him to see where he goes, and he doesn't want to corner himself until he's really sure. What he has told me is that he wants to make sure that he continues to develop as a pro. He's only what, 19 years old? And he knows that he's not even close to reaching his peak."

Subotic has until his 21st birthday, which will occur in late 2009, to make his decision. Until then, U.S. fans -- and coaches -- will be watching his progress with considerable interest.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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