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For Preki, Patience Isn't Exactly Virtue

Last year's MVP in Major League Soccer turns 41 and struggles with an injury that has kept him on the sideline all season.

June 27, 2004|From Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Preki has gone from defying time to biding it.

The seemingly ageless midfielder, Major League Soccer's only two-time MVP, turned 41 Thursday without having played a minute this season.

"It's a tough thing," said the Kansas City Wizards star, who broke his left shinbone and dislocated his ankle in a spring exhibition game. "I'm not really a patient guy, so it's been very difficult."

Preki (last name Radosavljevic, but that hasn't been on his jersey since he played for the United States in the 1998 World Cup) was coming off a 12-goal, 17-assist 2003 season when he went down Feb. 21.

He had surgery to put two screws into his ankle, and doctors said he might be out for four months. In early May, the Wizards thought he would be at least practicing by June.

Now, it could be July 10 before last year's league MVP plays again. That would mean missing half of the 30-game regular season, but he would be available for Kansas City's first U.S. Open Cup match on July 20.

Preki's work ethic might have contributed to the later-than-expected comeback, Wizard Coach Bob Gansler said.

"I think initially he worked too hard, he worked too much, he didn't listen to the doctors," Gansler said. "Can I blame him? No. He's just anxious to get back in there. But I think he's been a little more prudent about his rehab."

Preki makes no apologies for trying to come back as quickly as possible -- with one clarification.

"I'm not pushing myself really hard to come back," he said. "I always push myself hard, no matter what. I'm not going to come back until I'm 100 percent, but in order to get to 100 percent I have to push myself hard every day."

Preki, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in the former Yugoslavia, started playing professional soccer for hometown club Red Star Belgrade in 1982. That makes his career older than 21 players on MLS opening day rosters.

What makes that especially remarkable is that he played indoor soccer for nine seasons, from 1985-92 and 1994-95. That's nine years of making quick stops and cuts on artificial surfaces, hardly conducive to longevity in any sport.

But since joining MLS in 1996 with Kansas City (he played the 2001 season with the now-defunct Miami Fusion), Preki has led his team in assists each year.

He was the league MVP in 1997. In 2000, when the Wizards won their only MLS Cup, he became the league's first player to reach 50 goals and 50 assists.

He is four assists away from Carlos Valderrama's league career record of 114, and his 77 career goals tie him for fourth with Chicago's Ante Razov.

"Preki's a unique guy, not only in terms of talent but in terms of his approach to things," Gansler said. "He has always thought that he is indestructible, and I think he continues to think that.

"In Preki's mind, he can play forever. That's great. I want him to think that way."

Preki knows now that he's not indestructible, and he's not talking about the option year on his contract in 2005.

But he vows to play as much as he can this season, at least. And the midfielder, a conditioning fanatic whose 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame carries little extra weight, believes he'll come back stronger than he was before the injury.

"Having this injury, I don't think it's going to slow me down," he said. "I'm working really hard, and I feel -- right now -- physically better than before this thing happened."

Even without Preki and forward Igor Simutenkov, who scored seven goals last season but has not played this year because of a leg injury, the Wizards were 6-4-3 and tied for the Western Conference lead with Los Angeles going into this weekend's games.

That's largely due to a stingy defense, anchored by veteran goalkeeper Tony Meola, which has given up only 12 goals in 13 games. Preki's return will give Kansas City a creative playmaker with a deadly left foot.

"When Preki's on the field, whether he's having a good game, a bad game, an average game, teams have to be aware," midfielder Chris Klein said. "He can make that perfect pass, that perfect dribble that can put a team on its heels. He's an offensive weapon that other teams have to be aware of."

But putting a "crafty veteran" tag on Preki would do his athletic skills a disservice, Klein said.

"You think of a guy who's crafty, that's a guy who can make some moves here and there, lose a couple of guys," Klein said. "But he can turn you around until you don't know where you are."

Meanwhile, Preki watches practice and works out, waiting for the chance to show off the life in his 41-year-old legs.

"A lot of people think when you get older you can't compete," he said. "Sure you can. You just have to take care of your body and live for it.

"That's the thing. I live for it. I love the competition."

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