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From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Service Interrupted Is Better Than No Service At All: plus an Interview with Ilija Stolica

Posted by tonybiscaia on September 21, 2010

A VIEW FROM THE FORT by Jim Dow

At a certain point in a Revolution training last week Steve Nicol put his three healthy strikers through a drill where he lined up ten balls at the far side of the box and pumped in crosses of every kind, one after the other, without stopping.

Each player had to stand by a small cone, set roughly six yards out from the center of the goal and strike the ball as it was driven towards them at a variety of speeds, altitudes and trajectories. Once the first contact was made the player had to immediately backpedal to the cone while watching for the next cross, line drive or rolling ball and then drive forward to shoot, head or otherwise deflect the ball on goal, again backing furiously when done. Forward, strike, backward, forward, strike and so on until all ten balls had been played.

In many ways the drill could stand as a metaphor for the current Revs season; consistently highly inconsistent conversion of whatever service has been available with the sad fact that there has been generally no service at all. Certainly for Kehli Dube, Zach Schilawski and Ilija Stolica the balls hit toward them by their coach were easily the best they’ve seen this year and yet even in this relatively unpressured situation only one of the players made contact with every delivery to consistently place or play the ball with any sort of accuracy or power. Stolica made the drill look as if he had been doing it for years and likely he has.

There are a great many different theories on the Revolution’s demise from being a top MLS team in 2007 to their current state which makes a close observer wonder if they could hold their own in the USL First Division at the moment. They range from cold appraisals of contemporary MLS realities to paranoid confabulations that make the extremes of the Tea Party world-view seem sane. But regardless of where one stands, something is rotting in Foxborough and there needs to be a fix in the immediate future if the franchise is to carry forward.

My own view centers on the last word of the preceding sentence; forwards, who they are and how they play. Currently the Revs are starting two Serbs, Marko Perovic and Ilija Stolica; the former is a sort of 9.5, neither a number 10 nor a real number 9; a bit like Steve Ralston in his latter days but without the consistency. Perovic is relatively mobile and can take people on, although this may be the result of having no one to pass to. He definitely brings a spark to the team and gives the coaching staff a point of reference for the offense. But because he plays to the side of the pitch he can be cut out of the game, particularly with the current dearth of good passing to play off of.

Stolica is less mobile but more certain on the ball once he gets it. The problem is, he rarely does. Watching him closely, it is easy to see that he can play the ball off to a partner in any number of ways, all in quick, one-touch movements. Again, few of his teammates are capable of playing this way, at least at present.

The result is, that when the two countrymen are up front the Revolution are effectively playing with eight field players and a keeper. The ball never reaches the forwards, it is almost always cut out since the service is inaccurate, mistimed and often not there. Booting the ball up field isn’t service, it is desperation and neither of the current front players wins many first or second balls.

Of the all the players on the roster only Shalrie Joseph seems capable of delivering the kind of ball the two front players need and since he plays some distance from them and in the middle of the park they rarely get to receive a direct pass from his cultured feet. In the Rapids match there were some flurries of ball movement but they continually broke down on the fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh touch due to lack of options, poor choices or simple bad execution. The team, as currently structured, cannot keep the ball in play with any level of surety and has to resort to long clearances and hopeful thumps forward. It is brutal to watch and must be totally debilitating to play.

Soccer teams, as with all sports teams, are the sum of their parts. Individual players may be perfectly good but when put on the field in combination with other players may be incapable of producing cohesive play. Certainly Alston, Barnes, Gibbs, Joseph, Nyassi, Perovic, Phelan, Reis, Sinovic, Stolica and Tierney, plus possibly Griffiths, Osei and Mansally have proven themselves capable of playing at MLS level, at least at times. The issue is the combination, as well as the clear lack of any playmaking help for Joseph that needs to be addressed in the close season.

With possibly more than $750,000 available in salary cap after 2010 rings down, plus a clear directive from the fans to seriously upgrade the playing staff, there is absolutely no excuse going forward. While some folks are calling for the coaches’ head and others want a complete house cleaning, the real question at hand will be can the current roster, or parts of it, provide any sort of foundation for rebuilding? Regardless of whether a tiny sliver of playoff possibility remains or not, the final matches of 2010 need to be directed towards determining precisely that, to focus on anything less would be irresponsible.

With a coherent passing attack, including buildup from the back and proper distribution in midfield and from the wings the Serbian connection might flourish. Indeed, even Dube and Schilawski might improve, to say nothing of what real shopping for groceries could yield. At this point, the question is moot, how can we evaluate Stolica unless someone gets him the ball, as Stevie Nicol did and does these beautiful early fall mornings in Foxborough.

I spoke with the newest Revs forward after one such session. He is impressively articulate and thoughtful and I was duly impressed even before I turned on my recorder.
JIM: Everyone I’ve talked to around the team has marveled at your command of a number of languages, five I think, plus a comprehension of Italian. Did you grow up speaking a variety of languages or did it come about through football?

ILIJA: Most of them came from the football; I was born in Serbia (and that is) my first language, of course. English, I started learning at school and then all the rest I learned in the countries where I was playing. French, I leaned in Belgium; Russian I learned in the Ukraine at (Metalurh) Donetsk and Spanish I learned (while) in Spain.

JIM: And do you find that to be common among footballers? I mean so many footballers in Europe play outside their country of origin, is it common for people in football to learn multiple languages, or is it restricted o those who have an interest in doing so?

ILIJA: You know, let’s say that it can be both. You have to be interested o learn language(s), you know. You have to give some effort, there are guys that I know who also speak multiple languages and I also know guys who play in one foreign country for five, six, seven years and they still don’t speak the language. I think it is also like in many other things, you have to work on it and you have, I think, to have a little bit of talent for languages.

JIM: But of course the bad news is you then can understand what the fans are saying…

ILIJA: (laughing) Yeah, that’s bad but it’s also good news you know, the (fans) when you are playing in your stadium and you are playing well it is also good news (to be able) to understand it…

JIM: When you are playing well…

ILIJA: Yeah, it’s true and I’m trying to always play well (again, laughing), then it’s easier.

JIM: Tell me what have been the biggest surprises for you so far, coming here to the States to play?

ILIJA: Let’s say the first, well I was faced with (the complexity of) administration, you know there was a lot of paperwork, I wasn’t used to it…

JIM: Because of playing in the European community where you move, essentially, without borders?

ILIJA: Yes, that’s it, it is really much easier and when you have working permission in one country you can work in another one but here it is a little bit different, you know, so there was a lot of paperwork but after that maybe what I would say is in football, in my job, let’s say it is a quite different game (here) because you are traveling a lot and I wasn’t used to it… You are traveling before a game from one part to another part of the country…

JIM: Had anybody warned you about that?

ILIJA: Oh yes, yeah they were telling me but to be honest I didn’t expect it to be so hard, you know. They were saying to me (when) they heard (that I was coming to the States) “Oh it will be interesting, it’s nice, you can see all the different cities…but that is really true but from another point of view, you know you travel somewhere and you go straight to the hotel, you are preparing for your game, you don’t have too much time to see anything from the different cities. And this is what I was facing, let’s say, the second most difficult thing but all the rest, more or less, I’ve changed, up to now, five or six different countries and I was used to the process of adaptation in foreign countries.

JIM: As a player coming from a relatively small country with a league where the standard is very, very high but the pay scale relatively low, did you grow up as a professional with the expectation that you would move, is it already in the operating system of young Serbian players that if they are successful they are going to be playing outside the country?

ILIJA: Yeah, I think it is true, you know, when you are born in the circumstances like I was born into you know always you have different ways to choose but I think for young people it is always one good way is to do sports because through sports you learn a lot of things and you have a nice accent in your life. In Serbia, I don’t know if you know this, that the most foreign players, international players playing in foreign countries are, first, Brazilians, then Argentines and the third country in the world is Serbia. There are really a lot of players playing outside of Serbia but also the competition and not just competition but let’s say there are a lot of kids starting out and you have to take that kind of risk starting out but you have to have your dream in the beginning and you have to stick with your dream and you have to work hard, of course and you know if it is meant to be, it is going to happen I think. You all that you can and then after that, when you have done everything and you wish hard enough and you want (to make it) enough, it will come.

JIM: In Argentina, for instance, which is a country I’ve visited many times and am a huge fan of their football, they say that the Argentine players who don’t succeed abroad fail because they miss their mom.

ILIJA: (laughing) Yeah, honestly I’ve played with a lot of Argentinian guys, you know, they, let’s not just say mother, they missed…

JIM: It’s a metaphor…

ILIJA: Yes, it’s a metaphor for really missing their own country, not just Argentinian players, Brazilian players are very similar, you know. If they don’t like, in a particular country, say the Brazilian players, top players, they cannot adapt in England, they don’t like the weather or whatever and they are, in that way, I understand, with half of their heart they are always in their own countries but I think that depends on the person. You have to know in your heart that when you move somewhere you have to take that (new) country for your home and you have to think only (about) that place where you are living at that moment, you know?

Especially, I think, when you are married and you have your own family, where your family is, it is your home and my family is now here and I don’t miss them…

JIM: So they have arrived?

ILIJA: Yes, yes, they are here, finally and I don’t miss anything right now.

JIM: Switching to the football, you are about to go and play in two places where it is going to be over 30 degrees Celsius and then you are going to come back here, where likely it will be cool weather. Is that kind of thing an adjustment for you?

ILIJA: Yeah…they told me that now in Denver it is high altitude and it is really difficult to play (there), they already explained (that) to me but you know, like I just said, here it is really different, a different game from Europe. I was playing in Spain, let’s say and it is maybe one of the biggest countries in Europe but it is not so big (as here). In the Ukraine, I had the longest flight was like two hours and I never had any time zone changes. I played in Belgium where you can travel by bus maximum two hours. It is different and it’s really hot and I think, especially in your first year here you need time to adapt, you know but we are all professionals and when you go on the pitch let’s say you more or less forget about all those things but it will catch you later. It will catch your body and you need more time to recover and (everything).

JIM: You are coming to a new team and you have a certain style or type of game that you play. As a professional how much do you have to adapt your game to the circumstances and how much do you have to try and adjust to the abilities and qualities of your new teammates? And, further, how much can you reasonably expect for them to adapt their games to yours?

ILIJA: I understand what you mean, first of all when you are coming to a new team you have to see what is going on, you have to see the way the team is playing, of course you speak with your coaches, with the technical staff, you speak with the players, then you see how they want to play, of course and then you try to adapt your game to the way they are playing. But, of course, it is also important that they start knowing you during practice, during the games, of course, even more important, what you need, what kind of balls do you like to get, do you want them to give you crosses in the first or second post, they are all things of practice and time and I think, like you said, it is very important that a player adapts to (his) new team first of all and then it is also important that the team (gets to know) the (new) guy and knows the way he is playing. This is a thing that takes a bit of time, you know. Of course in the beginning it is difficult but we all speak football language, we speak the same language (in that sense) and more or less there are basic things that we all know that you have to do in (specific) situations.

JIM: From watching you I would say that you play a very economical game, that is to say, you take one touch to control the ball, you kill it and you move it on, either with a pass, a flick or a shot. Many people who watch football in this country don’t understand how hard that is to do and how critical it is to playing effectively as a team. I’m wondering if that is an aspect of the game that even the players here in the States understand?

ILIJA: You know that is a really good question, you know this is, like you said (well) I’m happy that you asked me this because this is coming from the people who really know and understand the game. When I was younger I was trying to take the ball to dribble through two, three, four, five guys, you know and then with experience, working in different levels, with many good coaches, well you know when you watch, for example, the Spanish national team, if you watch Barcelona, well they have Messi but the other guys they play with one, two touches maximum and that is the most difficult thing to do in football.

The problem is, sometimes, when you want to play with one or two touches and the team is not used to it, then you get problems because you just leave the ball when you think that the guy (your teammate) will come and he’s not coming. This is what I said, these are the times when people need to adapt to you and then they are starting to (recognize) that with one or two touches you are making the team and the game much faster and it is much more difficult to predict what the team is going to play when you play only one touch. Like you said, for that you need a lot of running (off the ball) and I understand that people, sometimes they like to see that somebody is dribbling and all that but it (needs to be) useful for the team. If you go one on one with the goalkeeper, if you take him on, of course you have to do it but to dribble in your own half, to dribble in the places (that are risky)… I was doing it when I was younger, you know but with experience…you don’t need to do that, you are risking too much and you lose too much power, you are putting the team in danger and then the people who really understand football, they’ll say “yeah, he’s doing the right thing at the right moment,” but sometimes it is, like I said, good for the team but, like you said, sometimes the team needs to understand what you really want and that sometimes takes time.

JIM: And that is a learning process and I’ll leave you with this, you know there is a saying in Latin America that “no one can move faster than the ball.”

ILIJA: That is a really good philosophy for football, that’s true.

2 Responses to “Service Interrupted Is Better Than No Service At All: plus an Interview with Ilija Stolica”

  1. JB said

    Great article and interview, Jim. I always enjoy your pieces, but this one particularly so.

  2. Tom Hill said

    Yet another in a long compilation of great articles. Well done, Jim!

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