Postcard from Europe: Gerzicich closing on Israeli title
AMSTERDAM — Defensive midfielders are generally meant to have a calming influence, providing pragmatism amid speculators. As surprise Israeli league leaders Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona have been running like Swiss timing for months now, it should come as no shock that American-born Bryan Gerzicich plays the part in both theory and practice.
To be fair, these are surprising days in Kiryat Shmona, the northernmost city in Israel, which is tucked precariously between Lebanon and the Golan Heights. Who knew a 12-year-old club in a town of about 23,000 inhabitants – with just six years in the top flight, no less – could look like running away with the Ligat Ha'Al title?
Just don't suggest that fanciful notion to Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona's defensive midfielder (above left) yet and you can speculate all you want.
"In the town, everyone is very happy we are 12 points over second place," Gerzicich told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Israel earlier this week. "Also, the feeling in the team is very good. But I think, for now, we have won nothing and need to continue like this."
In full disclosure, Hapoel have won something already. It doesn't come with a Europa League berth, but the club did recently repeat as Toto Cup Al champs. They will fight for a place in the final eight of the more prestigious State Cup on Wednesday, but it's the town's first-ever outbreak of league title fever. Not that Gerzicich is getting carried away.
"We think game-to-game," he says insistently of the squad's mind set amidst all the excitement. "When we get into the playoff, we will think about the championship. We are too far away now."
On that note, Gerzicich isn't being pragmatic.
Hapoel still have six regular-season games remaining before reaching the championship playoff, a seven-match round robin against the top eight. A few bad nights in May can put winning 15 of 18 unbeaten games from October until now in danger of losing relevance. Last season, Hapoel won just one of five playoff games to finish fourth.
Gerzicich has been one of manager Ran Ben Shamon's best players for two seasons, and his name now turns up in Israeli conversations about the league's best. It's the old-school way in Kiryat Shmona, where the boss has overseen a team that's conceded just 11 goals in 24 league matches this term.
"It starts from the defense," said Gerzicich. "Our goalkeeper is in a grand moment right now. We have a steady defense. The midfield connects to the defense and attack. The whole team, we understand the game. All the players here know what they need to do, the message of the coach. This is the most important thing, I think, that everyone pushes on the same side."
While the players are busy taking inspiration from their coach, Gerzicich reports that Kiryat Shmona is drawing belief from the team. The area has been most commonly known for episodes of sorrow, but now they are proudly becoming famous for the joys of life.
"We don't have much to do in this town," he explained. "It's a small village, we think only of football. Now, they are surprised because we've stayed in the first position. When they see you on the street, they hug you and shout to you. It's great because the people are so happy."
When it comes to soccer matters outside Hapoel, the impetuous side of Gerzicich that you could catch daydreaming emerges for a moment. Though he spent only three months in America after being born in Los Angeles and has called Argentina home ever since, the question of whether he'd like to play for US coach Jurgen Klinsmann one day shoves his pragmatic nature to the side.
"Of course, I go," he says, laughing in jest at the silliness of the question. "If they want, I get the ticket and I go."
And if all goes well, Gerzicich could be an Israeli champion from a club never expected to win by anybody from outside their clubhouse. It certainly looks that way, in no small part because their defensive midfielder remains steadily on his guard.