Postcard from Europe: Kazlauskas eyes Eredivisie return
AMSTERDAM — Helmond Sport handyman Charles Kazlauskas is trying to find the road back to the Dutch top flight, and he believes his current squad is the best equipped to win promotion of any he's been on since leaving the Eredivisie.
The 27-year-old Milwaukee native ran out of contract after four years with NEC Nijmegen in 2005, where he appeared 11 times in the Eredivisie. After trials with the Chicago Fire and Kansas City Wizards didn't pan out, Kazlauskas returned to the Netherlands with unheralded TOP Oss (now FC Oss), where he became a fan favorite.
Oss made some playoff promotion noise for an upstart, but his search for the promotion road eventually relocated to Helmond — a town and team in NEC's regional shadow — before last season.
Helmond Sport squeaked into the promotion playoffs last season, only to wash out on penalties to first-round derby foe Den Bosch. Now, Kazlauskas and the same team core are again chasing the dream for a team many expect will make an earnest Eredivisie run this time.
"In the last five or six years of going for promotion, this is the best team," Kazlauskas told MLSsoccer.com. "I've won a couple of period titles with TOP Oss and we made the playoffs last year, but this team has the best chance to really go for it and earn promotion."
Promotion to the top flight brings with it many new sporting responsibilities and costs, facts that actually have the Helmond Sport board a bit nervous about the prospect. In today's economy, this partially fretful attitude is common in the Eerste Divisie, Holland's second division.
[inline_node:322512]"They say they're not really ready for it," Kazlauskas said. "It would be a tough summer to get things together."
Nevertheless, the American and his teammates thoroughly intend to put the club back in the Eredivisie for the first time since 1984.
"I say, if you're that close and you deserve it, you might as well go ahead and get promoted," Kazlauskas said. "A good example is Excelsior, who's won a few games that people didn't expect and holding their own in the top division. As a player, you're always reaching for the heights and want to win as much as possible. We just think if we win, we're going to go."
As is often the case on promotion-winning Dutch sides, Helmond Sport is led by a veteran core of players. Like Kazlauskas, many of his teammates have tasted Eredivisie life before.
"We have a few young players that are bringing their game, too, but we have five or six people that are around 30 and have been around a while," he said. "We know how to win games. We know those small things that make a difference."
After spending most of his Helmond Sport tenure further up the flank, Kazlauskas has recently been stationed at right back, where he worked most of his TOP Oss shifts. Well used to it by now, the American is unfazed when asked to switch assignments.
"I'm kinda like the joker of the team," he said. "You know, where ever they need a player, they put me there. We had one guy injured and now he's back, so the coach just wanted me at right back to make the team fit better at certain positions. It doesn't matter too much for me. All that matters is that I'm playing. In midfield or at right back, I can do my thing and run."
These days, Kazlauskas' "thing" is being done to great effect. The club stands level on points with third place through 11 games, a slot that would get them into the postseason even if they don't win one of the Eerste Divisie's period title berths.
"Of course, [winning promotion] is an achievement for my experiences in Holland," Kazlauskas said ahead of Friday night's trip to Sparta Rotterdam.
"I smelled the first division with NEC for a couple years and there's nothing like playing at the top level. That's a goal for me. That's what you want as a player."