Loss of Subotic to Serbia still haunts U.S.

Published Jun. 1, 2010 8:39 p.m. EDT

Neven Subotic honed his soccer game on the fields of Utah and Florida, represented the United States as a youth international, and once stated that wearing any other crest besides U.S. Soccer's would be akin to backstabbing.

None of that will matter when he dons a Serbian national team jersey at this summer's World Cup.

One of the most highly-coveted young defenders in European soccer, Subotic has been the subject of eight-figure transfer rumors and linked to prestigious clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal. Before all that, however, he was an immigrant child living in the United States trying to adjust to life in a new land and keep his love of soccer alive.

Discovered by a U.S. youth national team coach when he was training on his own in a local Florida park, Subotic quickly assimilated into the U.S. program set-up as a teenager, playing in the Under-17 World Cup in 2005 for the United States. His youth national team play eventually led to an opportunity to try out for German club Mainz 05. He signed and quickly rose up through the ranks, helping Mainz earn promotion back to the German Bundesliga.

During that time, his ties to U.S. Soccer were tested and eventually frayed. He was left off the U.S. Under-20 World Cup Team in 2007, a snub that has frequently been blamed for Subotic's ultimate decision to stop playing for the United States.

“Anybody who has ever dreamed of something and worked hard for it can understand how it is when you feel like you deserve something and then your dreams get shattered," Subotic told ESPN when asked about the Under-20 World Cup omission.

“The bizarre thing about this was that three months later I got called up for the senior national team (for an October 2007 friendly vs. Switzerland in Basel). For whatever reason I was not good enough for the U-20 squad, but weeks later it seemed as if I was good enough for the A team.

"Obviously this did not make my feelings stronger for the U.S. But it didn't do any damage either."

Subotic has tried to downplay what role U-20 coach Thomas Rongen's decision played in him turning his back on the U.S. national team, but his comments always reveal the tinge of bitterness that lets you know it played a major part in his choice.

Rongen's role as the perceived villain in Subotic's decision has helped keep Subotic from facing the same venom from U.S. national team fans that American-born striker Giuseppe Rossi faces for choosing to play for Italy. To some, Subotic was driven away by a coach's terrible mistakes (Subotic has also pointed to public criticism Rongen made of him), though Rongen has long insisted that an injury to Subotic led to him not making the Under-20 World Cup team.

Ultimately, Subotic wasn't born in the United States and wasn't born to American parents. You can argue that he owed it to the United States to play for his adopted country because of what it did for him, but you can't make players play for a shirt when their heart is somewhere else.


As frustrating as the Under-20 World Cup snub might have been for Subotic, if that's what it took for him to give up playing for the United States, then you have to wonder if he was ever truly committed. If he wasn't, and if him playing for the United States was simply a stepping stone to get him where he always wanted to go, then he isn't a player American fans should fret over losing.

Regardless of why Subotic left the U.S. Soccer fold, the fact remains that the national team lost a player who could have helped immensely. Subotic has blossomed in Germany, starring for Borussia Dortmund. It should come as no surprise that he has flourished in Germany because that is where Subotic was raised after his family left Bosnia and before the family moved to the United States. It was Germany that inquired about having Subotic play for its national team before it became clear he wouldn't meet the requirements for German citizenship.

Subotic ultimately chose to play for Serbia, where his parents are from, rather than Bosnia, where he was born. While there is a belief in some circles that Subotic wanted to play for Germany, he has insisted that Serbia was his choice all along.

Subotic the Serb just might get the chance to face some of his former U.S. teammates (including Jozy Altidore) in the World Cup, with the United States a potential Round of 16 opponent. If that match happens, American fans will likely bemoan the loss of another talented player who could have worn the stars and stripes, but Subotic insists that his decision to play for Serbia was one that he was always destined to make.

"The main point that I based my decision on was my heritage, origin and family," Subotic said via e-mail. "It was a step back to my birthplace. I was always different than the American kids because my parents were from Yugoslavia. I was raised a different way all my life, and even though my family and I learned to love the U.S., we were still Serbs."

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.