Balkans trio help Republic FC reach playoffs in first season

Ivan Mirkovic marvels at his good fortune.

The 27-year-old Republic FC defensive midfielder gets to play with a teammate, Nemenja Vukovic, and for a coach, Preki, he watched compete on television with wide-eyed excitement growing up in his native Serbia.

He’s also developed a special connection with another teammate, Emrah Klimenta, who, like Preki, Vukovic and Mirkovic, was born in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, though he has spent most of his life in the United States.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Mirkovic said. “When Nemenja came here, it was like, ‘Wow! We’re playing with Nenemja Vukovic.’ When you are growing up, you look at guys like Nemenja and really want to be like them.”

Mirkovic said he was fascinated as an 11-year-old watching Preki play for the United States against his country in the 1998 World Cup. Mirkovic later learned that Preki also was born in Belgrade.

While it proved fortuitous for Mirkovic, Klimenta and Vukovic to be united, it wasn’t part of Preki’s grand design when he started to put Republic FC’s inaugural squad together with technical director Graham Smith.

Preki didn’t see the trio developing, along with Mickey Daly, into the backbone of a defense that has the new third-division team in the running for the USL Pro championship. Republic FC secured a playoff berth Sunday with a 6-1 win over the Orange County Blues FC at UC Irvine as forward Thomas Stewart had a hat trick and Vukovic, Daly and Adam Jahn also scored.

Before tryouts, Preki knew only of the 30-year-old Vukovic, a native of Montenegro who had played in 15 matches for the Columbus Crew in 2012.

“I saw him as a guy who could bring some stability and experience to our team,” Preki said. “He’s good at passing out of the back and is calm with the ball.”

Preki first saw Mirkovic during an invitational tryout put on by the Ventura County Fusion, a fourth-division team for which Mirkovic had played a handful of matches the prior season. Klimenta, 23, who grew up in Walnut Creek, was signed from an open tryout.

“I had no idea about these guys,” Preki said. “Ivan did a decent job at the tryouts, so we decided to keep him. Now he is one of our key guys because he plays with all his heart.

“With Emrah, we weren’t sure what role he was going to play, or if he was going to play at all. To his credit, he has done himself a lot of good. He’s found a spot on the field, and I see a lot more coming out of him.”

Klimenta came to the team as a midfielder but has excelled as an outside defender. He took Vukovic’s spot when Vukovic was moved inside to shore up the central defense earlier in the season.

“We all came in different shapes and forms, but we’ve obviously come together as one,” Klimenta said. “That’s the most important.”

All have a tenaciousness that is a reflection of their tumultuous native land.

The Balkans was called the “powder keg of Europe” before helping to ignite World War I. The area was engulfed by civil war in the 1990s when Yugoslavia, a country born out of World War II, broke apart, though Montenegro didn’t split from Serbia until 2006.

“It makes sense that we’re all defenders,” said Klimenta, whose family fled its native Montenegro because of the unrest when he was a child. “We just have the same mentality because we come from the same part of Europe. Players there are strong-minded and tough.

“I lived so long in the States that it’s been good having these guys here because they’ve been bringing that homeland mentality out of me.”

That feeling of feeding off one another is shared by Mirkovic and Vukovic.

At first, Vukovic was disappointed he was unable to land a spot with a Major League Soccer team, originally the reason he decided to return to America after playing last season in Montenegro.

“Preki had called me and said, ‘If you don’t find a better club, come to me, and I’ll try to help,’ ” Vukovic said. “I’m happy, especially because I have a couple of good friends in these guys.”

Mirkovic came to the United States four years ago to improve his educational prospects – he’s close to earning his degree from Fresno Pacific – and to see “new things.” He’s been back to Serbia just once since then.

“I came here alone, so I miss my family and friends,” said Mirkovic, who rooms with Klimenta (Vukovic is married and has a daughter). “Now they are my family. For 31/2 years, I barely spoke any Serbian. Now I speak Serbian all the time with Nemenja and sometimes with Preki.”

The trio aren’t above speaking in their native tongue on the field.

“It can be to our advantage because they don’t know what we’re going to do,” Klimenta said. “Defenders will look at us and wonder, ‘What are these guys speaking?’ ”

Preki, however, never talks to them in Serbian during matches or in practice.

“Most of the time, it is business as usual, and we’ve got to focus on that,” Preki said. “There are little moments when we are relaxed and we chat a little bit in the native language. Like all the guys on the team, I want to help them and make sure they get better to have a future down the road.”

But Mirkovic, Klimenta and Vukovic think their coach is a little more demanding of them, though they understand why.

“Some people may think he is a little soft with us or gives us a little more leeway,” Vukovic said. “But in all honesty, he’s tougher on us. That’s not to take away from our teammates.

“It’s just the mentality of our people. It’s toughness, toughness and toughness.”