Connolly: Go ahead, try to stop Preki

one with five midfielders that could allow him to hang out under the strikers and not have to track back on defense -- there'd be a place for him in MLS next year.

But Preki has too many other things to accomplish in this game. Rather than retiring from soccer, he's retiring from being a professional athlete. Without a lot of people knowing about it, the midfield maestro has been coaching for the past several years. Sometimes two teams at a time, which is the case right now for FC Rangers in Shawnee Mission, Kan. He's coaching his two kids -- daughter Natasha (13) and son Nikola (11) -- on premier teams, and serves as the coaching director of the club that he founded four years ago.

Perhaps we'll see him coaching at the professional level someday. Until then, it's fun to envision Preki demonstrating how to take a free kick to a bunch of kids. They'll grow up thinking every good shot is supposed to dip and bend and swerve and float like a Tim Wakefield knuckler. (That's not supposed to happen, guys. Your coach just knows how to practice voodoo on soccer balls in a way few have ever been able to do, that's all).

Speaking of Preki's knack for bending balls up, over and around walls, my lasting memory of watching him play goes back to the spring of 1998. He had recently made Steve Sampson's World Cup squad and was staying behind to practice free kicks after one of the team's last training sessions before leaving for France.

Preki, Joe-Max Moore and Eric Wynalda took turns hitting free kicks from anywhere between 20 and 40 yards. They were using one of those wooden training walls that Kwik Goal makes to keep it as match-like as possible. I was just about to leave RFK Stadium to begin writing a piece on Mike Burns (I remember getting quotes from Thomas Dooley about him and the way his nickname sounded like "Birds-ey" in his German accent) when I saw Preki rifle one past one of the U.S. 'keepers into the far corner.

The next time he was up, he did it again. And again. Then he switched it up and went lower to the near post, almost mimicking the shot he cracked to beat Brazil a few months earlier in the Gold Cup. Joe-Max, as always, banged a few home, and so did Waldo, but the display Preki put on that day remains one of the greatest displays of excellence I've ever witnessed.

When people look back at Preki's career, they'll probably remember the aforementioned goal against Brazil, his magical year with the Miami Fusion in 2001, taking home the MVP in '03 and probably a free kick or two (there's too many to remember). Many will forget the fact that he played in two matches over in France with the national team or that he's the one who started the play with a cross to Marcelo Balboa to set up the dramatic goal Tab Ramos scored against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying back in 1997. They'll forget that he scored nine goals over three seasons in the English Premier League and first division, too, playing for Everton (as a left-sided midfielder, imagine that) and Portsmouth, respectively.

What should be remembered about Preki is how he kept himself in playing shape and avoided injuries over all but one season of his 20-year career as a professional through his hard work. When you are still playing in the pros against kids half your age it's because of what you're doing away from the field and away from daily training sessions with your team. It's the work put in when no one else is watching. Much like Roger Clemens, who is known for his strenuous workouts, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make the game look effortless when 40 years old is in your rearview mirror.

He took up yoga late in his career to keep him limber, and always had time to play a game of 3-on-3, whether it was basketball, soccer or a game with his kids. That competitive edge has kept him young.

Preki wasn't always the most congenial guy or friendly to the media, but he softened during the final years in K.C. The unforgettable snarl of his -- the photo of Preki jawing with Alexi Lalas remains a classic piece of MLS memorabilia -- wasn't easy to find once he rejoined the Wizards in 2002. There were more smiles, more joy and, of course, plenty of magic left in his adidas boots throughout that second tenure in Kansas City.

As a last word of thanks, I will speak on behalf of all journalists, editors, press officers, media relations staff members and anyone else who has ever had to use a keyboard to write about MLS over the last 10 years:

Thanks for being Preki ... and just Preki.

Writing out his given Serbian name "Predrag Radosavljevic" hundreds of times since 1996 would have been as tough as defending him and his lethal left foot around the goal.

Just ask Leo Cullen.

Marc Connolly is a freelance writer covering soccer for several publications. Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs


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