LONDON — The man who’s set to become the first American to play in a Champions League final was discovered in a city park in Bradenton, Fla., nine years ago.
“It’s absolutely true,” said Neven Subotic from Germany, where he’s a starting center back for the Borussia Dortmund team that faces Bayern Munich on Saturday in the world’s marquee annual soccer event (FOX, 2:45 p.m. ET). Now 24, Subotic is a seasoned six-year pro who has won two German league titles, but in 2004 he was just a 15-year-old kid training with his father, Zeljko, at G.T. Bray Park in Bradenton.
“I was at the park every day, either by myself or with my dad, just working on crossing drills, playing in pickup games, doing everything,” said Subotic, whose first name rhymes with Kevin and last name is pronounced SOOB-uh-titch. But little did he know that a coach in the park had been watching him. Keith Fulk was an assistant on the U.S. under-17 national team, which has a residency program in Bradenton, and he would make some extra money by training youth teams in the park.
“I saw this tall, lanky kid,” Fulk said. “If Field 1 was taken, Field 2 was open, and this kid would be shooting. He had a big bag of balls, and he’d work sometimes on volleys, sometimes on his left foot, sometimes on headers with anyone who’d serve him balls. But the thing I noticed more than anything was after he did this, he’d run laps around the field: two, four, six laps, even interval training. His work ethic and mentality were like a pro’s.
“After two weeks of seeing this kid every day, I went up to him and said: ‘Hey, what’s your name? What’s your deal?'”
Subotic introduced himself and explained his story: That he’d been born in Yugoslavia but fled the civil war with his family when he was 1 year old. That they’d moved to Germany, where they spent the next nine years until they had to leave because their visa was expiring. That they’d been allowed into the U.S. as refugees, relocating to Salt Lake City, where Zeljko had a distant relative. And that they’d moved to Florida so that Neven’s tennis-playing sister, Natalija, could enroll in Nick Bollettieri’s famous academy there.
Fulk watched Subotic play that weekend on a local under-18 team and in a “Mexican league” amateur game. And even though Subotic had been cut from tryouts for the Florida Olympic Development Program a couple months earlier, he became part of the U.S.’ elite under-17 residency program.
“That’s really when my life changed,” Subotic said. “That was the first time I was in a professional atmosphere. We had training every day, we had great matches, we were learning tactics. It wasn’t all about fun. You had to bring performance onto the pitch, otherwise you weren’t going to play.”
Neven’s discovery was also a moment of pride for his father, who had cut short his own hopes for a pro soccer career when the family left Yugoslavia. In addition to learning how to coach his daughter as a tennis player — “he thought he was like the dad of the Williams sisters,” Neven said. — Zeljko was working multiple jobs in Bradenton to make ends meet. “He was a janitor at the school where the [residency] players went,” said Fulk, who compared Zeljko to Earl Woods, Tiger’s father.
Subotic’s next career break came on a U-17 trip to the Netherlands, when he was spotted by British agent Steve Kelly, who soon arranged a tryout for him at German club Mainz. Subotic received a contract offer from Mainz’s rising young manager, Juergen Klopp, and when Klopp moved to Dortmund in 2008 he brought along Subotic, who was acquired on a $5.5 million transfer.
Then Dortmund went on a rocket-ship ride.
“It was something that I wouldn’t even dream about,” Subotic said. “The year before we came, Dortmund were 13th from 18 teams. Immediately after we came here, we were sixth, the next year we were fifth and the next two years we were first. It was a big change in quality, and nobody really saw it coming because we weren’t buying expensive players. We were buying players who had potential.”
The big move finally came this season. Dortmund won its Champions League group, made a miracle stoppage-time comeback against Málaga in the quarterfinals and dispatched favored Real Madrid in the semis to reach Saturday’s final against a very familiar opponent.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Subotic said, “and I’m just happy as hell to be in the final. I’ve even had Facebook messages from my buddies in the U.S., guys I went to school with, and I didn’t get any messages when I won the league or the German Cup. You can see Champions League is something that people in America follow.”
Ah, America. If you’re a fan of the U.S. national team, you no doubt know by now that Subotic represents Serbia at the senior level and not the United States. It’s a source of frustration for U.S. supporters, and it’s also a complicated story. Subotic played for the U.S. at the 2005 Under-17 World Cup and later for Thomas Rongen’s U.S. Under-20 team, but he filed a one-time switch and changed his national-team allegiance to Serbia, which he represented at World Cup 2010.
If you ask Subotic today why he switched to Serbia, he says: “The story is that my whole family, they’re all Serbian. Playing for the U.S. is something I was considering, but when I thought about it, you shouldn’t try and change your life when you’re not really ready for it. It’s always better to make a decision that goes back to your heritage. You can never change where you come from, and that was definitely Serbia. I think it’s been the right decision.”
But there was another element in play. In November 2006, after a U-20 friendly, Rongen told ESPN.com that Subotic, who’d recently moved to Mainz, had “not accelerated over there to the point where we feel he belongs on the [U.S.] team.”
Subotic wasn’t happy about Rongen’s remarks, but whether they caused him to switch from the U.S. to Serbia depends on whom you ask. Subotic says no, not really.
“That didn’t bother me that much,” he said. “I did find it unprofessional. Even to this day I still haven’t met a coach who did the same thing he did. Some things are better left in privacy. But he wasn’t the coach for the [senior] national team, which is where I would have gone. It’s something I did for my family.”
When asked if Subotic would be playing for the U.S. right now if the Rongen criticism hadn’t happened, Fulk has a simple response.
“Yeah,” he said. “When I went to see him at Dortmund, he told me, ‘Coach, something happened and I lost my respect. Then I moved on.’ That was the big thing. He was loyal, so he would have played [for the U.S.]. I think Neven has never forgotten that.”
Rongen, for his part, is diplomatic when the Subotic topic comes up.
“He’s turned into a hell of a center back, maybe one of the best in the world,” said Rongen, who did help the U.S. discover dual nationals like Terrence Boyd, Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud. “I don’t hold any grudges. If I’m the one who forced that decision, you know, that’s the way it goes.”
The U.S.’ loss has been Serbia’s gain, however, and Subotic still has plenty of people who follow him in the States. These days his parents, Zeljko and Svjetlana, live in New York, in Queens, and they’ll be on hand here at the final on Saturday.
“You never know how often your son is going to be in the final,” Neven said, “so they’ll definitely use that chance to be there and support me.”
For Subotic and his family, Saturday could be the best day yet in a long and remarkable journey.