Predrag Radosavljević, known more commonly by his merciful nickname Preki, is a legend of the U.S. Soccer scene. Imported from his native Serbia to play indoor in Tacoma, Washington in the early 1980s, the fleet-footed wizard, a set-up man of elegance and creativity, went on to become a champion in Major League Soccer with Kansas City and represent his adoptive USA at the World Cup in France in 1998.
Now head coach of St. Louis FC in the second-tier United Soccer League, Preki is taking cold, dead aim at the U.S. Open Cup the same way he did countless opposing defenders in his playing days. He spoke freely to ussoccer.com about being underdogs against MLS side Chicago Fire in the Cup's upcoming Fourth Round, the challenges of leaving his son on the bench and how he coaches the way the used to play: instinctively.
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ussoccer.com: You opened your 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup campaign against amateur outfit Michigan Bucks in an indoor arena, admittedly an unusual environment for an 11v11 game. What did you make of the 2-1 win?
Preki: It was a challenge. I have to admit. We were up against a small team on a strange field. The surface was difficult. There were no locker rooms. No showers [laughs]. But we applied ourselves as professionals even having played three games in six days, with travel on top of that. We were happy with what we did and how we did it. And I have no complaints about the result.
ussoccer.com: It’s no amateur outfit up next for you and your team. Chicago Fire have won the Open Cup four times and are a big name in Major League Soccer…
Preki: The game against Chicago Fire is an exciting thing for us. It’s a chance and a big opportunity. We should use it to showcase ourselves and express ourselves as a team and as players. It’s a tough opponent and one who’s ahead of us in terms of talent, money and organization. OK, we admit this. But at the same time, it’s soccer and it’s 90 minutes and well, we’ll have fun and get right into them.
ussoccer.com: You know about the Open Cup as a player and a coach. What makes it special? Is there such a thing as Open Cup magic?
Preki: In the Open Cup anything is possible. It’s a one-game thing. If you catch a team on the right day or a team catches you on the right day, anything can go wrong. Or right! It all depends on those 90 minutes, or those 120 minutes. Whatever. Someone will win. Someone will lose.
ussoccer.com: How do you approach a game, as a coach, that you know needs to have a winner?
Preki: You have to take it seriously and put out as good a line-up as you can. It’s another competition and another trophy and that alone is a motivation you have to respect. We’re a small club playing against big clubs now, against Chicago Fire who everyone knows. But if we play the way we can it could be a surprise for them. We’ll have to wait and see.
ussoccer.com: It’s been a long time, nearly 20 years, since a lower-league team has won the Open Cup. Do you think that could change this year?
Preki: I don’t know if a smaller team is getting closer to winning the Cup. The differences between the top flight and the second division are still very big. Chicago Fire has one player that costs more than our whole club! We’re not talking about individual players costing more than other individual players, but one player costing more than a whole club! Finances matter in professional football.
ussoccer.com: Maybe you’re talking about Bastian Schweinsteiger, Chicago’s highly paid German World Cup winner…
Preki: It’s not just him, but yes he is one of them who earns more than our whole squad. He’s a world-class player. And if he plays, we’ll try to make it as difficult for him as possible. We’ll work hard to make his life difficult. Maybe he won’t care as much at this stage in his career. Maybe he’s not taking it all that seriously. You never know. Our guys are hungry and young and that can make a difference.
ussoccer.com: And giants can fall. It’s happened before…
Preki: Yes. In the Open Cup you never know what can happen. This is the beauty of it. Maybe the big team won’t take it as seriously as they should. Maybe they will rest players and take the smaller team lightly. And maybe it will cost them in the end. These factors all play into what happens.
ussoccer.com: Was the transition from coach to player a difficult one for you? You were something of a fiery renegade in your playing days…
Preki: The transition has been very natural for me. I really enjoy what I do and I love the game. I have a deep passion for it. It’s a challenge, yes, but nothing worth doing is easy. I love teaching the players and giving to them everything I have to give. I love to see them get better. The process has been easy because I love being around the game, influencing it.
ussoccer.com: What do you stress to your players? What are the keys to success for Preki?
Preki: I want my teams to be brave. Organized and ready, sure. But bravery is the key. You have to believe in what you can do. I want to press as much as we can and to attack. This is what soccer is all about. It’s not always easy in the second division because attacking players who can do all the amazing things cost a lot of money. So we have to teach from scratch. It’s a lot of work. But there’s nothing wrong with hard work.
ussoccer.com: Some were alarmed to see the surname Radosavljević on the subs’ bench for the game in Michigan. They worried that a 53-year-old Preki had put himself in the roster. But the Radosavljević in question is actually your son, Nick. What’s it like coaching your kid?
Preki: [Laughs] It’s difficult to coach your son. You have to separate the emotions of being a father from the job of being a coach. I’ve been able to do that. Nick’s a part of the group and he works hard every day. And when I feel he’s ready he’ll be thrown in at the deep end and we’ll see what he does with his chance.
ussoccer.com: Since you came to play Arena Soccer for the Tacoma Stars in 1982, how much has American soccer changed?
Preki: Everything has changed. It can be seen in the stadiums and the media, where people show up and pay attention and the game matters now like it never did before. When I look at all that stuff I find it amazing. You can’t turn on the TV now and not find a live soccer game from somewhere. I would never have predicted this.
ussoccer.com: What stands out for you from a playing career that spanned over 20 years and saw you become the only man to be named MLS MVP twice?
Preki: When I won the title in 2000 [with Kansas City] that was a special moment for me. It’s always something special when you win with a group you worked hard with for so long. The Open Cup win in 2004 was special too because those are things – trophies and titles – that you take away from your playing days and remind you of all the sacrifice.
ussoccer.com: What makes the differences between a title-winning season and a regular season?
Preki: You always have to put in the hard work and go hard for a long time, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll win anything at the end of all that hard work. So it’s the titles and the trophies that make it all special. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a little of your ego to make the team better. That’s a lesson I learned. And it makes a difference.
ussoccer.com: Anyone who’s seen it remembers it. The Preki Move. You’re near the corner of the penalty area and stand the defender up. Everyone - the defender, fans and teammates - knew what was coming. You drop your shoulder and cut in left. It always seemed to work. Every time…
Preki: [Laughs]I don’t know how to elaborate on that move. When I played the game it was with natural instincts. I felt it inside and I’d read the defense and respond accordingly. There’s no way to write it down or to pass it on. I can’t tell you how it worked or why. It just came through reflex. A lot about this game is instinct and it can’t be taught.
ussoccer.com: You earned 28 caps and scored four goals for the U.S. Men’s National Team, but your first cap didn’t come until you were 33. What are you memories of those days?
Preki: I scored qualifying goals and played in the Gold Cup. I scored an important goal against Costa Rica and against Brazil too. Those are all great memories. But the World Cup [France 1998] wasn’t the best for us. We only scored one goal. It was an own-goal, but I assisted on it. I wish I was a little younger when I got my opportunity, but you never know when your chance is going to come and you have to take it when it does.