CHESTER, Pa. – Haris Medunjanin isn’t typically mentioned in discussions about marquee players brought into MLS from overseas in recent years. But given the season he’s quietly built for the Philadelphia Union, perhaps he should be.
“I believe he’s been a Best XI player and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” head coach Jim Curtin said of his 34-year-old midfielder.
A former Bosnia and Herzegovina national team player, Medunjanin has played a key role in the Union’s offense since arriving from Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2017, acting as a deep-lying No. 10 with his wide range of passing. But with a new system implemented this season, he’s also taken on more defensive responsibilities as a No. 6.
After a difficult start to the season in back-to-back losses, Medunjanin has adjusted well to the new style of play to enjoy one of his best seasons as a pro to date.
“It’s for sure one of the best seasons in my career,” Medunjanin said.
A role model for younger players
Even with a change in approach and key additions to the roster in the offseason, Medunjanin has been invaluable during the Union’s unexpected run for an Eastern Conference crown. He leads the team in assists with 10 and has gone the full 90 minutes in each of Philadelphia’s 29 league matches.
“He does all the stuff fans and other people don’t necessarily see,” 18-year-old midfielder Brenden Aaronson said. “Whenever we get in rhythms, he controls it and it’s all from him with his passing, the weight of the pass to you, the amount of ground he covers.”
Aaronson roomed with Medunjanin in preseason and credits the veteran for smoothing his transition to the first team, providing honest critiques and advice as he’s navigated his first full season as a pro.
“He’s been the biggest role model for me,” Aaronson said. “After trainings, after games going to him or texting him and getting feedback on how I played or trained, he’s just helped me so much with that.”
Medunjanin has embraced that role, as he remembers how important it was to have older players to look up to and get feedback from when his pro career began at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar in 2004.
“I know myself when I was younger, it was harder and you played with a lot of more-experienced players and they would be like cursing you out when you did something wrong,” Medunjanin said. “Like that you learn, and sometimes as a player we should be hard on the younger players to get better.”
His veteran leadership has earned as much praise from Curtin as his play on the field. When Alejandro Bedoya was out against Atlanta United earlier this season, serving a suspension for yellow-card accumulation, Curtin said it was an obvious choice to give Medunjanin the armband.
“He’s a real fit for this system and style we want to play, but I can’t speak enough of what he does with our young guys in showing them the way off the field,” Curtin said.
A star player on a team of lesser-known stars
Medunjanin’s career bounced around four different countries before coming to the U.S. in 2017. Former sporting director Earnie Stewart’s connections to the Netherlands, where the now-U.S. Soccer sporting director grew up, played and was a director of football affairs at AZ, helped lead Medunjanin to Philadelphia. Once here, he said adapted quickly to his new home.
“For me, it was directly a click with the coach,” Medunjanin said. “I think he’s one of the best coaches in the league.”
Medunjanin has since retired from international play, but his club career hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Over his three seasons with the Union, he’s appeared in all but four league matches – three of those for a suspension after receiving the first and only red card of his career last season.
While Medunjanin’s consistency makes him deserving of the star label, he has also embraced the team’s approach to finding advantages through scouting lesser-known players in the global market and developing players through the academy.
“All the sports here in America, it’s only where the star players play, that’s how it works,” Medunjanin said. “That should be a fuel to the other guys who maybe don’t get the recognition that they can also play. You can only show that week to week by showing you can play.
“You’ll always have star players, you’ll always have LeBron James, you’ll always have [Carlos] Vela, you’ll always have [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, but we will never be that. So we need to work hard together to achieve what they achieve maybe by themselves.”