EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Predrag Radosavljević was a wide-eyed 22-year-old kid in 1985, an unknown indoor soccer player hoarding 25 pounds of bananas in a Tacoma, Wash., grocery store because they only appeared on the shelves once a year in his native Yugoslavia.
He arrived in the United States carrying only a toiletry bag, and he spoke no English. He ordered chicken from the local diner every day for three weeks, because he didn’t know the words to order anything else on the menu.
But on Tuesday, the man so lovingly known now in American soccer circles only as Preki was able to reflect on such trying moments with delight, inducted as part of the 2010 class of the National Soccer Hall of Fame during a ceremony at New Meadowlands Stadium.
“It’s been an incredible journey for me,” said Preki, now the head coach at Toronto FC after one of the most celebrated playing careers in league history. “When I first stepped foot in this country, I knew this was the place I was going to stay. I knew this was the place I was going to find success.”
[inline_node:315605]Preki was inducted along with Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, NASL star Kyle Rote Jr., two-time US World Cup veteran Thomas Dooley and soccer reporter Paul Gardner.
A career that began as a youngster for Red Star Belgrade took a fortuitous turn when Preki was first spotted by Bob McNab, a former MISL coach with the Tacoma Stars. McNab – who introduced Preki on Tuesday – likened his first glimpse of Preki as “a match between Fred’s Leather Shop and Joe’s Pub,” but eventually brought the youngster back to the US more for his skills with the ball than for his physical fitness.
“At the time, fitness and him weren’t closely associated,” McNab said. “I made him run the 10K, which he absolutely loved, and I made him go back in the afternoon for sprints. And I learned a few Yugoslavian swear words.”
Preki played five seasons with the Stars and eventually suited up for both Everton and Portsmouth during the 1990s, but his glory days began in earnest with the formation of MLS in 1996. He spent all but one of his 10 seasons in the league with Kansas City, leading the team to its only MLS Cup in 2000 and earning two league MVP awards while playing in eight consecutive MLS All-Star games from 1996 to 2003.
[inline_node:315606]His first league MVP award came in 1997, but his second crowning in 2003 was perhaps even more impressive, dubbed the league’s best player during a season when he turned 40. When he retired at 42 years old in 2005, he was a member of the league’s All-Time Best XI team and the all-time league leader in points scored.
He also found glory with the US National Team, capped 28 times after becoming an American citizen in 1996. He suited up for the US at the 1998 World Cup in France, but more famously scored the game-winning goal to beat Brazil in the semifinals of the 1998 Gold Cup.
Preki thanked his family and former MLS and US teammates, but added that McNab’s eagerness to pull an unknown player from Yugoslavia was a singular act of faith that reverberated well beyond the Tacoma Stars.
“It says something, that I’m sure a lot of kids in Serbia and Yugoslavia now have an incredible chance,” Preki said. “And there are so many of them over there who would take that chance.”
Preki’s career has turned to the sidelines since his retirement, first as an assistant with Chivas USA in 2006 and then as the MLS Coach of the Year with the Goats in 2007. He joined the ranks in Toronto prior to the 2010 season.
“If there was no game of soccer, we truly wouldn’t be here today. We wouldn’t be talking about all these things,” Preki said. “Hopefully, so long as I live, I will be involved in some capacity in the game, and hopefully I will be able to give back what the game has given me.”