Republic FC midfielder Ivan Mirkovic calls teammate Nemanja Vukovic “the Franz Beckenbauer of the USL.”
Hyperbole or high praise? Perhaps a little bit of both.
Beckenbauer was recognized as one of the world’s greatest defenders during his playing days for the West German National Team, Bayern Munich and the original, star-studded New York Cosmos. Called “Der Kaiser” for his leadership and graceful style of play, he is often credited with creating the role of the modern sweeper.
There’s little argument that the 30-year-old Vukovic is a special player for the defending USL champions.
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Last season Vukovic was named the USL Defender of the Year and joined teammate Rodrigo Lopez on the All-USL team. Vukovic led the team in matches played (34) and minutes (2,955).
So when Vukovic was forced to have surgery to repair a hernia in his abdomen before the start of the season, Republic FC soon learned how much his presence would be missed on the central back line.
The team surrendered goals in bunches while losing friendlies to the San Jose Earthquakes and the new New York Cosmos and falling to the Seattle Sounders FC 2 and Portland Timbers FC 2 and beating the Los Angeles Galaxy II in stoppage time in USL play. Sacramento allowed 12 goals in five matches.
But since his return April 11, Republic FC has allowed only one goal in three matches, all wins in front of sellout Bonney Field crowds. In Vukovic’s first start-to-finish performance last Saturday, Republic FC throttled the Portland Timbers FC 2 3-0 in its best performance of the season.
Mirkovic said it was no coincidence.
“You could see when he started against Portland it was our best game of the season because he was controlling everything from the back,” Mirkovic said. “That’s why I call him Franz Beckenbauer. He has that elegant style with that soft touch; he’s comfortable on the ball and he’s a natural leader, so that helps a lot on the field.”
Added outside back Emrah Klimenta: “He’s not the fastest of guys. But he is fast mentally. He knows where the ball is going to go next, where the players are going to go, where he should be and puts himself in the right spots.”
Vukovic started to feel a searing pain in his lower adodomen toward the end of the regular season last year. At first he thought he had a groin strain.
“With every single touch with the ball, it would hurt me a lot,” Vukovic said. “I was told I should rest for 10 to 15 days. But I didn’t want to miss the playoffs. I wanted to play.”
Despite his discomfort, Vukovic had a pair of goals in the 4-1 win over the Wilmington Hammerheads in the opening round of playoffs. He played another full 90 minutes in the “Miracle at Bonney” 3-2 win over the LA Galaxy II in the semifinals and the 2-0 win over the Harrisburg City Islanders for the championship.
The pain continued to bother him through the offseason, and he eventually learned he had more than a groin strain. When he returned to Sacramento, he opted to have surgery.
“It was a smart move,” Vukovic said. “I feel a lot better now.”
Vukovic rehabbed so well that he was back training with the team within four weeks, nearly a month ahead of schedule.
The native of Montenegro played with the Columbus Crew in 2012 and thought with the stellar season he had last year he might get back into Major League Soccer or wind up with a high-level team in Europe, where he has played most of his career.
“I expected somebody to call me, but there was nothing serious, nothing special,” he said. “So I came back here to help Sacramento win another championship.”
It also gives him a chance to continue to work with Klimenta. Vukovic spent most of his career as an outside back. Klimenta grew up as a forward, but transitioned to defender when he saw it as a chance to crack the Republic FC lineup as a rookie last season.
“He’s done a lot to help me because my transition from offense to defense was tough,” Klimenta said. “But with his help and expertise, it’s made it a lot easier. And playing with him is fun.”
Vukovic prefers playing in the central defense now beside partner Mickey Daly. He’d rather watch Klimenta and James Kiffe, Republic FC’s other starting fullback, do the exhausting attacking and defending that coach Preki expects from his outside backs.
“He doesn’t have the legs to go up and down the field,” Klimenta says kiddingly as he glanced toward Vukovic.
But Vukovic agrees. “Exactly,” Vukovic said. “I don’t want to run a lot. I like seeing Emrah going up and down.”
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