Inevitably, some players across MLS are lonelier than others during the COVID-19-imposed social distancing of the past few months. New arrivals from overseas or those stuck far away from their families are particularly vulnerable to isolation.
It’s not so bad for Zdenek “Kobra” Ondrasek, though. A year removed from coming to MLS, FC Dallas’ Czech striker is now comfortably settled in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex with his fiancee Daria and their dog. He’s fluent in English, the Texas heat is no longer quite so daunting and he’s carved out a prominent role in the FCD attack.
Things were tougher when he first ventured outside his native land eight years ago, then to join Norwegian club Tromso IL.
“Of course it’s not easy to make decisions like this. But I was always open for adventure, this is the word? To do something new, something crazy,” he recalled during a recent phone conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “When I got the offer from Norway, I went there and I didn't speak English at all – I knew only ‘hello’ and the F word. So, it wasn't easy.”
Some professionals dive into intensive coursework to pick up a new language. Ondrasek, who became the Tippeligaen’s co-leading scorer that season, was a bit more resourceful.
“I never went to school, just Google Translate, TV shows,” he revealed, “and life.”
“‘Friends’ was the first – no, actually ‘How I Met Your Mother’ was the first, and then I saw it like 10 times in a row, all the series, all the seasons, and then I went to ‘Friends,’” he added with a chuckle. “If you show me some episodes of TV from ‘How I Met Your Mother ‘or ‘Friends,’ I'm gonna tell you what they’re gonna say. I remember everything. It started in English with Czech subtitles, two, three times in a row, then with English subtitles.”
Turns out there’s unexpected humility, and humor, underneath the shaved head, poker face and tattoos. Ondrasek’s advice for aspiring learners: Just put yourself out there.
“Sometimes I said something stupid, [teammates] were laughing for three to five minutes and then they told me like, ‘Yeah, I understand what you want to say, but you have to say like this and that and that.’ And it helped me,” he said. “If you want to speak like, perfect, great, amazing English, then OK, then it's hard. But if you want to speak like my English, then I don't think it’s that hard.
“No one believed me, but yeah, every evening I was watching the shows. And every evening, every day I was learning words, some sentences and stuff. Here we are.”
That mentality helped Kobra overcome the challenges of his first year with FCD to become one of the league’s most intriguing stories. Arriving in Frisco with some degree of fanfare via a TAM deal last winter, he played just 208 minutes – starting only one match – over the first five months of last season, with coach Luchi Gonzalez preferring younger No. 9 options he felt better fit his possession-centric concepts of play.
Then he was called off the bench at halftime of an Aug. 17 visit to the Montreal Impact, Dallas’ 27th league game of the year, and scored his first MLS goal 14 minutes later, sparking a fierce comeback from 3-0 down to earn FCD a euphoric road point. That kicked off a roaring run of seven goals in eight games, nudging his team into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
“I scored the goal in Montreal and then I got more chances. The guys were supporting me in the hard time,” he said. “That's why I believe I took the chance when I got it. And then I got more time on the field, the guys were great – they were looking for me.
“At the end it was an amazing season, maybe one of the best, to be honest.”
It also earned Ondrasek an unlikely entry to the Czech national team, the first senior call-up of his career – at the age of 30, no less. His tale got even wilder when he netted a stunning game-winner to topple England during a Euro 2020 qualifier last October.
His international teammates, full of questions about his life in the new world, also made him welcome with a second nickname.
“Everyone is asking about America, of course. Not everyone’s been here or knows the US … The guys were joking like, ‘Hey, cowboy is here,’’ he said. “I played three games in the Under-21 national team, so I knew some of the guys. Even though I knew like five of 25 people, they welcomed me like I was there with them all the time … I was the ‘cowboy’ and they asked me if I was alive.”
As for the “Kobra” tag: Some media outlets have reported that his sobriquet came from the cobra tattoo on his back, but Ondrasek sets the record straight – it’s the opposite.
“The nickname started as a joke,” he said.
During a postgame film session at his first professional club, SK Dynamo Ceske Budejovice, a coach began to criticize his lack of work rate as he loitered at the edge of the penalty area, only for Ondrasek to suddenly snap into motion and finish a cross into the box with a few quick steps.
“He was like, ‘Yo, what this is, man, you are just standing here and then suddenly like some cobra you attack and you score, which is great, but you have to help the team.’ And everyone was laughing. And then it stuck,” he recalled.
A few years after he progressed to the first team, the team captain suggested Ondrasek get a tattoo signifying the moniker.
“I wanted to do it actually on my calf, but at the end when I saw the cobra, I was like no, you're going on my back,” Ondrasek said.
Following a rollercoaster-like 2019 season, Kobra resumed his hot streak this spring, scoring twice in FCD’s two matches before coronavirus rolled in, a frustrating development as he chased a spot on the Czech Republic’s Euro squad. But that dream is still alive, and he and his fiancee are content in their new locale, impressed with the kindness of their Texan neighbors and eager to explore more of North America than a typical MLS road swing allows.
“America is a different world than Europe. It’s beautiful,” said Ondrasek. “I say to everyone who has a chance and who can visit, visit the US, because it's amazing, so many nice places. I still hope I will get a chance to see more and more.
“I'm enjoying this adventure and I'm happy we are here.”