Jakovic adapting to life with D.C.
WASHINGTON, DC -- D.C. United head coach Tom Soehn has said that his entire squad recognizes the need to perform well in 2009 in light of last season's myriad disappointments. But few face a task as tricky as that of Dejan Jakovic, the Canadian international who, despite joining the club in the final days of preseason, was viewed as an impact signing expected to shore up United's central defense almost immediately.A tough undertaking for a 23-year-old, to be sure, but it might feel like a vacation compared to the environment at Jakovic's last club, Red Star Belgrade. The history-steeped Serbian club won a European Cup, in 1991 and its fanatical supporters have been known to turn up at training session and express their displeasure -- vocally and sometimes even violently -- when the team's results are not up to par."The fans are crazy -- that was the one shocker when I got there," said Jakovic, himself a lifelong Red Star supporter. "The fans have a lot of authority and I wasn't really expecting that. They come to practice before games and stuff, and just let you know how they feel and what they expect from you."Jakovic was born in Karlovac, a village in what is now Croatia, but he emigrated to Canada at age six when his family looked to escape the brutal ethnic warfare which broke out as the former Yugoslavia crumbled. After a strong youth career in the Toronto suburbs, he won a scholarship to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where he enjoyed four strong seasons and caught the eye of MLS scouts, but leaped at the chance to join his beloved Red Star in June 2008.He started three league matches for his new club, but a run of poor results in domestic and UEFA Cup play sparked the sudden dismissal of Zdenek Zeman, the coach who had signed Jakovic. Zeman's replacement benched the young defender immediately and by the midseason break it had become clear that Jakovic needed to move on."The coach and the sporting director got changed and it just wasn't working out for me. I didn't want to just sit there," he said. "D.C. was really interested in me and that also had a lot to do with it."Soehn and his staff had spent much of the offseason hunting for an experienced central defender to anchor their back line in the wake of last year's poor showing. When Jakovic became available, however, they decided that his international experience (with Red Star as well as the Canadian under-23 national team) and considerable technical gifts trumped any concerns about his age."The important thing for us was to find someone that has good feet, has the ability to organize, has got a presence in the air and has got pace. I think Dejan fills all those needs," said Soehn. "We are still going to be young in the back, [but] that could be a real positive if they mold well together."Off the field, Jakovic has had little trouble coming to grips with his abrupt move back to the North American way of life, having moved into a house with teammates Marc Burch and Anthony Peters in D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood, just a short distance from RFK. But he's faced a challenging adaptation to United's system, as he started at right back in the season opener in Los Angeles, but had to slide into the central role in a 3-5-2 formation for last week's 1-1 home draw with Chicago.His performance against the Fire showed signs that he possesses the speed, strength and savvy required to man the fulcrum of a three-man back line. But Jakovic's confidence with the ball at his feet sometimes got him into trouble, as he was caught in possession deep in his own half on several occasions. His coach maintains that he's largely encouraged by what he's seen so far."We've moved him around a little bit. I thought overall he did decent in both spots," said Soehn on Wednesday. "He's very comfortable on the ball, almost too comfortable for me sometimes. I thought he took a couple chances in the second half which he didn't need to, which we didn't do in the first half. But I like the fact that he can play out of the back and start the attack."Soft-spoken by nature, Jakovic will also need to develop his communication skills in order to keep the D.C. defense organized. But if he and his mates can craft the right chemistry, United's rearguard could be set for years to come."I wasn't too sure if I was going to end up here. It all happened so fast," he admitted. "But I'm slowly adjusting and it's getting better every single day."