HOBOKEN, N.J. — While it may be an increasingly popular mark of affection in Philadelphia, Kacper Przybylko admits he is still getting used to his cartoon-inspired nickname: Kacper the Friendly Striker.
“When I was a youth player in Europe, the coach told me he cannot call me Kacper, no one will respect you on the field," Przybylko told MLSsoccer.com last month with the same amiable enthusiasm with which he celebrates goals at Talen Energy Stadium. "Everyone knows Kacper the ghost, but in Germany, it’s also Kacper the clown. Like a puppet clown," as he began to pantomime a puppet on his right hand, complete with facial expressions to drive the point home.
"They said we cannot call you Kacper," he continued. "'Przybylko? 'No, we’ll call you Pritsche.' Everyone was calling Pritsche, even my mother was calling me Pritsche — I said mom, I’m your son, you can call me Kacper!"
Pritsche? For an American audience already struggling with the consonant-heavy Przybylko (pronounced shuh-BILL-koh), Pritsche (pronounced prit-chee, but in one syllable) provides little respite.
Things may be changing, however. With all the times his name has been screamed following his 15 goals this season, MLS fans have become increasingly comfortable pronouncing his name. Those in Philly sure have gotten it down.
“I think it’s just too complicated, there’s no vowels! It’s a little different, but maybe everybody can now say Przybylko,” he said with a laugh.
Things haven't been this smooth for the buoyant 26-year-old in a while. In fact, breaking multiple bones in the same foot multiple times while in Germany led Przybylko to the cliff's edge of retirement, the former Polish youth international staring into the abyss of abandoning a once-promising career. He was pulled back only by family and friends who convinced him to give it one last go.
“No please, don’t talk about the injuries again," Przybylko said before the question even came out, still managing to stretch half a smile across his face as his eyebrows raised in sincerity. "That was the most difficult part of my life. I was so close to quitting, thinking maybe my foot cannot handle this."
The third-place Union have ridden their leading goalscorer to a club-record 55 points this season. And they have his perseverance to return from injury, which convinced them to give him a trial and then a contract late in the 2018 season, to thank for his burgeoning career in MLS.
"If it happens again, I won't do it anymore"
Born in Germany to Polish parents who moved to his country of birth when they were young adults, Przybylko grew up alongside two brothers, including twin brother Jakub, who currently plays for Berliner AK 07 in the fourth tier of German soccer. Just as the 6-foot-4 striker now provides a physical challenge for defenders across MLS, Przybylko admits that he and his brothers' imposing statures posed real problems for his parents.
“I’m thankful for my parents, I had a great life as a child," Przybylko said. "It was difficult for them, they came to Germany when they were 18 or 19, they had to learn the language. I had two brothers, they had to pay for the three of us and we were always so tall. All the time, we get new pants, but two months later we needed new ones because we grew out of them."
He represented Poland at various youth levels, from U-15 through U-21, making his professional debut in the German third tier before getting a consistent run of games in the 2. Bundesliga. After moving from FC Koln to Greuther Fürth, it was at FC Kaiserslautern where he began growing into his potential.
Then the injuries came.
Przybylko broke his right foot during a game in 2016, the first drop of rain from a dark cloud that hung over him until this season. The screw that was put in his foot as part of a standard procedure didn't quite take right, scratching a neighboring bone. So, a few months later, he had surgery again to remove the screw.
That didn't work out, either.
“It’s impossible. This kind of injury, you always need a screw or plates because the most pressure is on that fifth bone," Przybylko said. "I tried without it, it broke again. We put it in again, the second doctor had this 'great idea' that he could change how I stand, so all the pressure wasn’t on that part of my foot. But then that bone also broke. They weren’t used to that.”
Changing course again, doctors took part of a bone from his big toe to fix the initial break. Twice thereafter he returned, only to suffer yet another broken bone in his right foot almost immediately upon returning to game action.
“One and a half years, I broke bone after bone," Przybylko said. "It was very difficult, very emotional. My family was like just try it again, just try it again. My good friend [and rehab trainer] Nelson, he was always working with me. I’m so grateful and thankful. He said don’t quit, you have so much talent, we’ll figure out what’s going wrong and you’ll come back on the pitch.”
After slogging through rehab time after time, the mental and physical toll began to take hold. Przybylko couldn't take it anymore.
“After the last one, I was FaceTiming with my parents and I was crying — I’m not embarrassed to say that, it was a very tough moment," Przybylko said, that smile leaving his face for one of the few times in the conversation. "They felt with me. They said they understand, you have the talent. My brothers too. They kept saying just try it again, you’re still young, it’s not over yet. All the time they were talking to me. Everyone has given me positive vibes and energy, I didn’t come back just for myself but for them."
While Przybylko happily decided to try it one last time, he doesn't shy away from revealing how close he came to calling it quits.
“How close? If it was 1-10 and 10 was quitting, I was like an 8 or 9," he said, carefully running the calculations in his mind. "After the third one was broken, I said it’s too much. I said if it happens again, I won’t do it anymore. Just all the time, seeing the guys — I’m not playing soccer to be someone famous. I play because I enjoy being with the guys, scoring goals, celebrating together. I was missing that. I was sitting in the stands, if they won I was happy for them, but if they lost I felt guilty because I couldn’t help them.”
Things could have hardly turned around more spectacularly in Philadelphia. Not only has he put his injury issues behind him, he's been the model of durability: Since making his first start of the season in May and earning a starting role almost immediately, Przybylko started each one of the Union's next 25 games, playing the full 90 in all but two.
“I’m happy for the doctors here, they help me," he says, pleased to again be talking about his current team and situation. "New insoles, they did tests with me and helped me get my fitness back. I’m thankful being here. Hopefully they’re thankful what I’ve given them back.”
"I always believe in myself"
Once he finally returned to health, it wasn't easy getting back into the game. Teams in Germany were dubious of his ability to stay injury-free after so many complications, so he tried something new. The Union had recently appointed Ernst Tanner as the club's new sporting director and Przybylko's agent reached out to the German to see what opportunities might be open in America.
“I would say I found Philly,” Przybylko said with a laugh. “My agent was good with Ernst Tanner. I was looking for a new club, I was looking for something else. He said let’s take a look how Philly Union is doing."
Przybylko came over for a trial and was training with the team for a few weeks before getting the requisite paperwork to sign a short-term contract through the end of the season. It was mid-September of 2018, little more than a month left in the season. He still had to get his fitness back while the Union were barreling toward the playoffs. The season ended without him making an appearance.
“When he came in with us, there was still some rust," head coach Jim Curtin said. "He wasn’t fully sharp, but you could see his quality in front of goal. The fitness side wasn’t there yet, the first training sessions were – and he’d probably tell you this – he wasn’t himself. It was difficult, he knew he had more to give.”
Just as Curtin envisioned, Przybylko certainly would tell you himself.
“I can tell you I was dead after the first training session, because the humidity was horrible, I swear," Przybylko said. "It was so hot and dry, I was like what the hell, how are they doing this? I wasn’t used to the humidity, in Germany it’s hot in the summer but not like that. Wow, I had to get used to that weather."
Despite his early struggles, that offseason, the club picked up Przybylko's contract option for 2019. That faith in his ability, Przybylko said, has, more than anything, helping fuel his breakout season.
“I have this tattoo that says always believe in yourself. I always believe in myself. Even when people say I have a bad game, it was always motivation for me to show everyone I can do it better. It made me strong, always believe in yourself. There’s also a second meaning,” Przybylko said, maneuvering his fingers to cover some letters from the tattoo, “always be yourself. I didn’t expect to have a run like this, but I know when I play for this team, I will get those chances. This team creates so many chances, it’s a dream for every striker being in this team."
While he had to wait for his opportunity, not receiving his debut until the eighth game of the season, he hasn't looked back since.
"It’s very rare that a No. 9 is among your leaders every 90 minutes in distance covered and sprinting," Curtin said. "He’s been exceptional for us. I’d be lying if I didn’t say he was exceeding all expectations I had. I knew we were getting a very good striker but I didn’t know we were getting a top striker in our league.”
“I told Kacper to his face: Not only do I think he’s a 20-goal scorer in MLS, but if I’m doing my job, Ernst is doing his job and Kacper is doing his part, he’s back in Europe in the top leagues scoring goals," Curtin added, emphasizing just how highly he thinks of the striker. "He’s that good. Obviously we want to win things here first and foremost, but he has the ability to be in Europe scoring in the top leagues in the world. He’s really good.”
For now, it's all about the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. Przybylko and the Union host the New York Red Bulls in Round One, looking to advance in the playoffs for the first time in club history.
“The guys should know we can line up with every team in this [league], we’ve proved that," Przybylko said. "If someone is saying something different, please call me. I mean, I said it already and I shouldn’t do it again, but to everyone else I wish you a lot of luck, because we will fight for every second. Good luck to everyone."
As he suggested, it's not the first time Przybylko has exclaimed his confidence before a high-profile matchup, something Curtin both condones and enjoys. It's just who Przybylko is: Kacper the Friendly Striker, being sure to always believe in himself.
"Maybe that’s why they call me the friendly ghost striker, because I came from nowhere," Przybylko said with a laugh. "I’m a friendly person, but on the field, I’m not friendly.”