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Dec 26, 2008

Subotic shuns U.S. colors for Serbia

Another one got away.

That's the general consensus among American soccer fans who were faced with the disappointing news that highly regarded defender Neven Subotic of the German Bundesliga team Borussia Dortmund had chosen to play for Serbia rather than the U.S. national team. Subotic's decision ended a lengthy saga that saw him transform from Bosnian immigrant to U.S. youth national team player to European prospect to full-blown European star.

Much like Italian national team striker Giuseppe Rossi and Mexican national team defender Edgar Castillo, Subotic passed on playing for the United States, but unlike Rossi and Castillo, Subotic did so after having worn the uniform. Now U.S. fans are left to ponder what went wrong as the blame game goes into full swing.

How did a U.S. U-17 and U-20 national team player slip away just as he is reaching stardom in Europe? The process began when Subotic left the U.S. U-17 national team residency program and signed a deal with German club Mainz 05. Having lived in Germany for most of his young life before moving to the United States at age 10, Subotic already had plenty of ties to Germany when he went back to start his professional career. So when he began to flourish as a player, it was only natural that he would start to see any ties to the United States fade.

The only problem was that Germany wasn't an option. Subotic's time with the U.S. youth national teams ultimately blocked him from choosing to play for Germany because he never gained citizenship in Germany before playing for the United States. Sources have suggested for some time that Subotic's first choice was the German national team, so when FIFA nixed Germany, Subotic was left with a decision between the United States and Serbia, the native country of his parents.

That decision seemed to offer the U.S. national team a lifeline, but Serbia saw an opportunity and began actively recruiting Subotic. Boasting one of the best collections of young talent in Europe, Serbia stood a better chance of swaying Subotic than Americans ever realized. As his family also made it clear which nation they wanted him to play for, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Subotic would ultimately swing toward Serbia.

You could argue that the scenario is similar to the ones that took place with Rossi and Castillo, who both spent time playing professionally outside of the United States before ultimately choosing to play for countries other than the country of their birth. Rossi left the United States for the Italian club Parma at age 12 and only strengthened the ties to Italy already established in him by his Italian father. Castillo spent two years in Mexico with Santos Laguna before choosing to play for Mexico, the country of his parents' birth.

None of that background makes Subotic's decision any easier to take for a U.S. Soccer organization that essentially discovered Subotic and put him on the path to the success he is enjoying now. It certainly doesn't sit well with American fans who watched him slowly progress into a full-blown European star only to have him ditch the U.S. national team. It also didn't help that Subotic himself made comments two years ago essentially stating that he would never play for another national team after having played for the United States.

"I've played [for the U.S.], I've been in [U.S. U-17 national team)] residency, so I'm an American," Subotic said in an interview with the U.S. Soccer Web site in November 2006. "And I've worn the crest, and that's also a thing that you have to respect. If you wear it once you're not going to wear another crest.

"That would kind of be like back-stabbing, I would say," Subotic said. "I'm an American 'til the end."

Subotic's feelings were no doubt driven by his gratitude toward a country that did so much for his family.

"For me, for my family to come to America was kind of like a second chance, because from Germany you either come to America or go back to Bosnia, and in Bosnia I probably would have been a farmer by now," Subotic said in the same interview.

"America was like a second chance to make something of ourselves. I'd like to think I did accomplish something. I made the national team, I went to college and this country made it possible. It's my way of kind of repaying."

So what exactly changed in the two years since those strong remarks from Subotic? Theories abound, and the most popular one involves Subotic's exclusion from the U.S. U-20 World Cup roster in 2007. U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen insisted that Subotic didn't make the roster because of injury concerns, but Subotic's own comments about the situation a year later make you wonder whether it did play a part in his final decision.

"Well, Rongen certainly said some discouraging and false things about me," Subotic told ESPNsoccernet in July. "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," Subotic said. "I still don't know what he saw in the other players, and what he didn't see in me."

So could that snub have ultimately led to Subotic's decision to play for Serbia rather than the United States? Only Subotic himself knows for sure. While he tried to downplay any hard feelings about the Under-20 World Cup snub earlier this year, his earlier statements make it clear that the snub did hurt him.

Whether it was because of that snub, or because Subotic simply felt stronger ties to Serbia -- and to Europe in general -- the fact remains that Subotic chose not to play for the United States. While it is certainly understandable that fans will be upset with the loss of such a quality player, no national team needs a player who doesn't want to play for it, and no country should settle for a player whose heart isn't completely into wearing its uniform.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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