You sit with Preki to watch Real Madrid play Juventus FC in the Champions League semifinals, and it’s hard to realize you are sitting with North American soccer greatness.
His casual demeanor conceals the intensity of a man who scored the only goal for the United States when it beat Brazil in the semifinals of the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup. His laughter hides a résumé that includes two Major League Soccer MVP awards.
The man scored four goals in the English Premier League, which you’ve got to think is more than anybody else in this town, as if there were any doubt about him being the chosen one to direct Sacramento’s soccer future.
Preki built Republic FC for speed and runs his club at a pace that has helped ignite passion for the game in the region.
Preki took in the match in the offices of Republic FC, the team he coaches. While 78,000 fans filled Estadia Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Preki sank into a couch to absorb the beauty of the game that unfolded on a flat screen.
“Obviously, Real is a very talented team, and they’re keeping the ball and making Juventus chase a little bit,” Preki said, a few moments after Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty kick put the home club up 1-0 midway through the first half. “When you play big teams like Real or Barcelona, most of the time you’re chasing the ball because they’re so good at keeping the ball and making little plays in the middle of the field. It almost looks like they have extra people on the field, the movement is so good.”
Preki watched mostly in silence but showed great patience in analyzing the match as the clubs raced up and down the pitch. Later in the first half, he sensed a major development when Ronaldo sprinted down the left side with the ball and looked to have plenty of room for a shot to the keeper’s left. Instead of taking it, the Portuguese hero slipped the ball back into the middle, where the play disassembled.
“He’s got to shoot it,” Preki said. “But it’s always easier to see that from here than over there, especially after you’ve just run 60 or 70 yards like he did. You don’t have much time to think about it.”
Real Madrid’s first-half goal forced a change in Juventus’ strategy. Needing a tie to advance to the championship match, it opened up the offense. Counter followed attack, and the only time play slowed for the next 45 breathtaking minutes was because of a Real Madrid ballboy. He reached over the barrier behind his team’s end line to retrieve a ball that Patrice Evra tried to corral for a quick Juventus corner kick. When Evra reached for the ball, the boy pulled it away. They stood there a moment, grabbing and slapping at each other. It looked like something out of Laurel and Hardy.
Too bad Real Madrid couldn’t get the kid on the field in the second half. When the Italian squad lifted a free kick to the side of the goal, Paul Pogba poked it to Juventus teammate Alvaro Morata. With the ballboy not around to clear it, Morata blasted one home from the box top to make it 1-1, which is where it ended. The goal differential over two Champions League matches between the clubs sent Juventus to the June 6 title game against Barcelona in Berlin.
“On set pieces like that, the most difficult moment comes on the second ball,” Preki explained. “A lot of people, after the ball is hit the first time, until the ball is totally away from danger, they forget their assignments and who they mark inside the box. So they leave them, and that’s when the problem starts.”
Approaching 52, Preki has seen soccer evolve from when he became a professional player 33 years ago. He started making money in soccer the same year Italy won the World Cup the Woody Hayes way: 3 yards and a cloud of dust, plus a defense that beat the hell out of everybody. Like American football, the international sport now thrives on a fast pace that Hayes would have hated.
But Preki loves it.
“It’s much faster, much more aggressive,” Preki said. “In the olden days, a lot of things were allowed – harder play, kicking people – it was easier to defend. These days, you can’t touch anybody. Yellow, second yellow – it’s hard to defend for the most part and not be broken down. The players are more protected, which I totally agree with. These people come to the stadiums to watch entertainment. They don’t come to watch somebody fighting. They want to watch the beautiful game, the flying game, the fluid moments, the attacking plays.”
Preki’s defending USL champs play Sunday in Los Angeles against Galaxy II. He built Republic FC for speed and runs his club at a pace that has helped ignite passion for the game in the region. He considers Sacramento one of the best soccer towns in the United States, right there with Seattle and Portland.
“That’s why I think we should be going up to a higher level,” Preki said, “sooner rather than later.”
Republic FC at LA Galaxy II, 4:15 p.m.