Postcard from Europe: Dunn stays the course in Serbia

AMSTERDAM — The oldest club in Serbia's SuperLiga, OFK Beograd, is about to get a little younger. And to hear incoming central midfield recruit Matthew Dunn report it, just a little bit shorter.

When the Dallas native turns 18 a week from Friday, he and his 5-foot-9 frame will officially sign to join the team he's been training with since their season started in the fall. Though accustomed to decent-sized and somewhat unyielding foes from his two years in the academy set-up of Bundesliga side FC Cologne, he says playing midfield in Serbia is more like running into traffic.

"It's a lot different, especially with the physicality,” Dunn told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Texas on Tuesday. “It's a technical style, but with a physical presence. At this club, we produce players like [Chelsea defender Branislav] Ivanovic and [Manchester City wingback Aleksandar] Kolarov — big, physical players.

"You need to be careful," he added. "Especially in training."

Having spent so much time with the squad before signing will help when OFK Beograd emerge from nearly four months of Serbian winter hibernation to kick off the second half of the season with a March 3 trip to Hajduk Kula. Dunn already knows the players and has a solid rapport with them, and he’s handled the change in culture from Dallas in stride.

“The language is different and it's cold,” he said, “but I've adjusted well."

And this chance to instantly contribute is what led the worldly youngster — who featured for the US in all four of their matches in last summer's U-17 World Cup — to Belgrade. Atalanta, Chievo and Genoa tried to snap him up for their Primavera Under-20 sides as his Cologne deal expired, with clubs in Belgium and Portugal having similar ideas.

Nevertheless, Dunn's decision was easy.

"I get the chance to play with the first team, and feature some," he said. "I wanted a chance to develop at this high level. This year, I'll probably be on the bench, but next year, [manager Dejan Durdevic] said I could be competing for a starting place in the team."

He still has to finish high school, of course. And that, like just about everything in his life, is fully his responsibility. He’s currently enrolled in an online high school and dealing with the rigors of the curriculum (math is a touchy subject), and he’s stuck with one inescapable fact unique to his situation: "I have to teach everything to myself.”

"It's mentally tough, but I've been doing this for a long time and you get used to it," he said. "I moved to Switzerland [to join the Grasshoppers academy] when I was 12, so I've been over here quite a while."

OFK Beograd, meanwhile, are currently aiming to earn another ticket to the Europa League, something that has become a semi-regular event at Omladinski Stadion. They trail third place in the Serbian table — which equals UEFA revenue and exposure vital to clubs outside the glamour leagues — by seven points with 15 games to go.

And Dunn, for one, is ready to help drive the club in the right direction.

"We're going for the last Europa League qualifying spot," he said. "We've had a lot of injuries, so we haven't been at our best all year. But we're hoping, in the second half, we can push forward.”