Soccer

Striker Adnan Gabeljic hopes he’s found a home with Republic FC

Adnan Gabeljic heads the ball in Republic FC’s friendly against the San Jose Earthquakes on Feb. 21 at Bonney Field.
Adnan Gabeljic heads the ball in Republic FC’s friendly against the San Jose Earthquakes on Feb. 21 at Bonney Field. rbenton@sacbee.com

Adnan Gabeljic is a Republic FC player without a contract, but the 22-year-old striker believes he has found a home after a roller-coaster odyssey last year.

Gabeljic, 6-foot-3, is expected to start Saturday against the New York Cosmos in a friendly at sold-out Hughes Stadium (20,231). The former Saint Louis University standout played 76 minutes and looked dangerous at times with his combination of size and speed in Sacramento’s 1-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in a friendly Feb. 21 at Bonney Field.

“That was a great experience,” said Gabeljic, who got off a couple of shots, one that was knocked away for a Sacramento corner kick and the other saved by goalkeeper David Bingham. “In Florida and Arizona last year, I played against some MLS teams, but never in front of a crowd of 10,000. It just excites me even more being in Sacramento because the fans are so supportive.”

Gabeljic said he’s glad he finally listened to his agent.

Last winter, Nebo Bandovic, a former Major Indoor Soccer League player, wanted Gabeljic to try out with Republic FC for its debut USL Pro season because he thought Gabeljic would be a good fit for coach Preki’s style of play, which emphasizes possession, skill and tactical awareness.

But Gabeljic was selected in the second round by Sporting Kansas City, one of Major League Soccer’s top franchises and a team coming off a championship season.

He spent two months with Sporting Kansas City, but never earned a contract. Instead he was placed with the Oklahoma City FC, a first-year USL Pro expansion franchise coached by former Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen.

His stint in Oklahoma City didn’t work out – though it gave him time to earn his civil engineering degree – nor did a brief tour with a second-division team in Croatia later in the year.

“I learned a lot,” Gabeljic said. “I had some injury issues and bounced around and never found a good fit for me until I came here. I feel now I have a coach that believes in me and thinks I can be successful if I work hard.”

Preki said Gabeljic has a big upside, but he said the match against the Earthquakes showed Gabeljic’s inconsistency.

“There are some good things there, but there are a lot of things he needs to work on,” Preki said. “Everything is up to him. We’re here to help him, but at the end of the day, he’s going to be the one who makes it or breaks it. He’s the one who really has to want it.”

Gabeljic insists he wants it a lot – he loves the fan support, the down-to-earth teammates and Sacramento’s climate – though he agrees he needs to do a lot more to earn a contract and be an effective player for Republic FC.

“Preki gives you a lot of freedom as a forward,” Gabeljic said. “We can track back for balls, but it’s also a lot of hard work. We always pressure the ball. That’s one area I need to improve. In the past, most coaches wanted me to just be the guy who stays at the top and waits for crosses. Now I need to be more active, create more chances.”

Preki won’t say if Gabeljic has the potential to be like Justin Braun, Republic FC’s 27-year-old forward. But Gabeljic is familiar with Braun’s story.

While coaching Chivas USA, Preki discovered Braun playing in a men’s amateur tournament at the StubHub Center in Los Angeles. Braun played 114 matches and scored 24 goals during his six MLS seasons before rejoining Preki in Sacramento last season.

“It’s really hard to find a spot in the professional world that works for you,” Gabeljic said. “So I feel really lucky right now. I feel this is the place for me.”

Gabeljic, a Bosnian American, was born in Croatia but his family fled to Stuttgart, Germany, during the Croatian war for independence. His family moved to the United States in 1999.

He played in only four matches during his short stint with NK Rudes in Zagreb, Croatia, last August, but it opened his eyes to his good fortune.

“It was hard getting acclimated to living there,” he said. “You realize living in the (United) States is just the best. Obviously soccer is not as big here as it is in Europe, but as far as lifestyle, especially California, you can’t beat being here.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

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