Neven Subotic is expected to be the first American to play in a UEFA Champions League final on Saturday when his Borussia Dortmund side takes on Bayern Munich at Wembley Stadium (2:45 pm ET, Fox).
But for some US national team supporters, his appearance will be a bitter pill to swallow. After representing the US at the Under-17 and Under-20 levels, the 24-year-old Subotic plays for Serbia, instead of the United States.
For current Toronto FC academy director and ex-US Under-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who many fans still see as partially responsible for Subotic’s defection, his former player’s story is a complicated one that nonetheless has become just a thing of the past.
“I have no ill feelings,” Rongen told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “I think he has said a few times that he doesn’t have any ill feelings. We’ve moved on. This kid is in the Champions League final, which is awesome. That I was able to coach him at one time and that he honed his skills in the United States and had some formative years here, that is pretty good as well. I’m pleased for him.”
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Back in 2004, Subotic and his family moved to Bradenton, Fla. so his sister Natalija could pursue her own budding tennis career at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. It was in Bradenton, also the home base for the United States U-17 national team residency program, that the 6-foot-4 defender was spotted in a park by one of the US team’s assistant coaches and eventually brought into the US program.
“I think it is a great story that anything is possible,” Rongen said. “You have to give a lot of credit to the player himself. If you look at where he started, it is a pretty incredible story. You can only dream about that. You can’t make that stuff up. Now look where it has all accumulated six years later. To me there are only positives in this story.”
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Subotic eventually made 10 appearances for the US Under-17 national team and two for the US Under-20 team. His last appearances for the US came in a November 2006 friendly, after which Rongen made some comments concerning Subotic and his lack of development with German club Mainz.
While some see those criticisms and with the controversial decision not to select him to play in the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada as key factors in Subotic's decision to ultimately represent Serbia at the international level, Rongen sees the scenario that played out as the culmination of the natural process that many players with dual citizenship have to go through.
“He has said that he felt a pretty strong desire through his family roots to be part of a European country,” Rongen said. “At one point in time, it was Germany or Serbia. We have had some other players, like Giuseppe Rossi with Italy, who did the same thing.
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“I think it has becomes harder and harder for these players to choose a country. There are a lot of things that have to be taken into account. Where do I have a chance to go to a World Cup? What will make my market value a bit higher? Maybe staying in Europe makes a player more visible to teams in Europe. I think a lot of things played a role in him deciding to play for Serbia.”
With respect to the comments that Subotic recently characterized as "unprofessional" (read SI.com article here) and the player's omission from the 2007 Under-20 World Cup squad, Rongen admitted the situation was not completely as black-and-white as many believe it was.
“I did say that he had not made the progress that some people might have been expecting, although comments are made like that by coaches all over the world," Rongen said.
"However, saying that, we did invite him for the Under-20 World Cup, which Mainz did not allow him to go to, similar to the situation with Jonathan Spector and Manchester United.
"With those clubs, when kids play a lot of games, there is only one time of the year where they feel they can take a needed mental and physical break, and that is during the summer months, when most of those youth tournaments are being played.”
Ultimately, Rongen believes that Subotic simply made the decision that he felt was the right one for him.
“I think his and his family’s desire for him to represent the original country where he was from was a more natural choice for them,” Rongen said. “I think my record of getting players from outside the system within the system speaks volumes, with players like Terrence Boyd, Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud that are now with our senior national team. You win some, you lose some, just like you do on the field.”
Steve Bottjer covers Toronto FC for MLSsoccer.com.