Emrah Klimenta calls his soccer odyssey “one helluva journey.”
The 25-year-old defender is Republic FC’s career games and minutes leader and arguably one of the best multitalented defenders in the USL.
The Bay Area native earned his first international call-up to the Montenegro men’s national team last month and received his first cap in a 1-0 friendly loss to Turkey on May 29.
But in 2013, Klimenta figured his dreams of being a professional soccer player had reached the end of the road.
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“I was on the verge of quitting soccer,” Klimenta said. “I had tried out in so many places that I was frustrated with everything.”
After bouncing around Europe for a few years and enduring a knee injury at a critical time, Klimenta, then 22, started to think about life beyond soccer, even though he never cared much for school or saw himself sporting a suit and tie.
He had just finished the fall semester at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill in 2013 when he learned that a pro soccer team was starting up in Sacramento and holding open tryouts.
Klimenta decided to give it one last hurrah.
He plunked down $200 and joined a mixed bag of former college and high school players and weekend warriors in a two-day spin of the roulette wheel in the chill of November in Davis.
“It’s far more difficult to convince a coach through the open-tryout process,” said Republic FC director of football Graham Smith. “You have some people who can play, and you’ve got other people who think they can play.”
Smith said Klimenta, trying out as a midfielder, didn’t immediately wow him or former Republic FC coach Preki.
“That’s the amazing thing,” Smith said. “Emrah didn’t come through the first tryout with flying colors. He didn’t leap off the page and we didn’t say to him, ‘OK son, you are going to sign with us.’ But Preki and I saw that this was a kid who had something about him.”
Klimenta excelled in a tryout call-back, then performed well in a weeklong invitational combine and signed a pro contract just days before the start of Republic FC’s inaugural 2014 season.
“I knew I deserved to be on the field, that I was destined to be on the team,” Klimenta said. “I made the team just in time to cancel my classes for the next semester.”
Klimenta started his career in Sacramento by moving to outside defender, a position he had never played. He quickly became a starter and played an integral role in helping Sacramento win the USL championship that season.
Now Klimenta, one of five players still remaining from Sacramento’s 2014 opening day roster, is considered one of Sacramento’s most valuable players and a next-level prospect.
Republic FC coach Paul Buckle said it’s a testament to Klimenta’s doggedness.
“It’s amazing what he’s accomplished,” Buckle said. “It shows what hard work can bring. … His work ethic is incredible. He has to take credit because he’s become an international now. But football will never change. You have to keep moving. And that the challenge for Emrah will be to keep improving, to keep getting better.”
Klimenta credits that work ethic to Jakup Klimenta. His father moved his wife, Zekija, and Emrah from their hometown of Rozaje, Montenegro, to Germany in 1995 (his younger sister Sejla was born there) during the growing unrest that had led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and civil war. Two-thirds of Montenegro’s population was living below the poverty line.
After nearly four years in Germany, the Klimentas moved to the United States in 1999. They first settled in Oakland before moving to Walnut Creek. His father worked in construction and is now an independent long-haul truck driver.
“That my dad worked so hard to make something out of nothing for his family goes along with my character,” Klimenta said. “I learned at a young age you have to work for everything you get. Nothing is granted.”
Klimenta said his father had tears running down his cheeks when he told him the surprising news of his first call-up to the national team. He was the only American-based player invited.
The Klimentas still have many family members living in Rozaje, a town of fewer than 10,000 in eastern Montenegro near the borders with Serbia and Kosovo.
“My uncles and a few of my cousins were able to watch me play during an interteam exhibition in Podgorica, where we were training,” he said.
Klimenta said he got choked up when hearing the Montenegro national anthem before playing in front of 33,000 screaming Turks in the southern Mediterranean resort city of Antalya.
“I had goosebumps – it was one of the best nights of my career,” said Klimenta, who entered the match in the 75th minute.
As Klimenta prepares to lead Republic FC against the Real Monarchs SLC on Saturday night in a USL match in Reno, his topsy-turvy soccer odyssey only reinforces his no-regrets resolve about the path he chose.
He graduated early from high school and bypassed college soccer for the opportunity to play in Europe as a teenager, first in Slovakia then in Germany. He spent nearly two years playing for Bundesliga member FC Ingolstadt 04’s U-18 and U-19 teams in Bavaria. But his chance to earn a pro contract with a Turkish team was derailed when he injured his knee 45 minutes into a tryout.
“I actually got an offer to play at Cal a few days before I was to leave for Europe,” Klimenta said. “So I can’t help but think about the different scenarios. Maybe if I had gone to college, I would already be in MLS. But I also got to experience a lot of things that college players don’t. I got to live in Europe as a teenager. It made me grow as a man, not just as a soccer player. Those are life lessons you can never learn unless you go through them.”