In preparation for this Saturday's Matchday Program, dcunited.com sat down with Dejan Jakovic. Head out to the match to pick up the full feature, ticket available online
You recently returned from Qatar w/ the Canada Men’s National Team – how did that trip rank against all of the other international destinations you’ve been to?
Dejan Jakovic: It was different. I feel like we got taken care of the most on this trip. I feel like everything was close; our hotel was right beside the complex and I’ve never been to a Middle Eastern country, so it was all very new to me, but the people were very friendly. They took us in as their own and we played two good, quality teams in Japan and Belarus. So overall, I had a great time even though it was extremely hot. We trained in the afternoons and we had some time off, but we didn’t wander off too much. They had two malls that we kind of checked out. We went into the city [Doha] and saw all the skyscrapers and all the buildings that were just very unique and so much texture and design to them, so it was pretty amazing.
So, did you get a sneak peak of those air-conditioned stadiums that are supposed to be there for the World Cup in 2022?
DJ: [laughs] Yeah, a few of the fans asked me and I can’t remember if there was air conditioning in the stadium, but it wasn’t hot. It wasn’t hot inside the stadium, so I think they were. I’ve heard some crazy ideas that they have for the summertime in the World Cup – like they’re going to make fake clouds and put them over the stadium to cover up the sun and stuff, so I don’t know what they’re up to.
How excited did the locals seem about the World Cup coming to their country in about 10 years time?
DJ: They are [very excited]. Yeah, I was surprised how many foreigners there were living there. I think it’s about a 1.5 million population and only like 30% are Qatari. There are a lot of Indonesians and Sri Lankans that I saw. Most of the women were obviously covered up, but it was a very unique place.
After Qatar, what country is next on your checklist that you would like to visit, either in a soccer capacity or during some time off?
DJ: I’d like to Russia, to Moscow. I’ve never been there. I’ve been in Kiev in Ukraine and that was also beautiful.
You’re from the former Yugoslavia, but grew up in Canada and play for their national team – was playing for Croatia something that was a realistic option for you or something you ever considered?
DJ: No, I never really considered it. I moved to Canada at a really young age. I’ve pretty much been raised in Toronto, so I look at myself as a Canadian and I’m honored to put the Canadian jersey on me.
And you went back to Eastern Europe to play for Red Star Belgrade after college – what was that experience like?
DJ: I wasn’t born in Belgrade in Serbia, but I am Serbian, though. It’s every little kid’s dream to play for Red Star, so when I found out I had an opportunity to go there on trial, I was so shocked and excited. Overall for me over there, it was a great experience – the coaching and the training sessions were not something that I saw before and I learned a lot over there. Even though times were tough with the club, I still had a great experience. It was really nice for me that I was there and I spoke the language, so I didn’t have to adjust. It’s always hard when you go play overseas and you don’t know the language, so I had a great time. I think Belgrade is a beautiful city and Red Star has always been a big club, so it was a great experience for me.
What do you know about the status of Red Star Belgrade now?
DJ: It’s a little tough right now, but Red Star is Red Star. They have one of the best fan bases in all of Europe. If you ask anybody, they’ll tell you that.
Was your earliest soccer memory back in Europe or when you got to Canada?
DJ: Well, my dad played for Karlovac, which is in Croatia and I remember him taking me when I was a little kid into the locker room. One memory I have was he went after training and jumped into the showers and I got scared and I was alone, so I took my clothes off too and hopped in with him [laughs]. So, soccer is in the family – I started playing when I was six and my dad is a huge mentor for me. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for him, all of the times that he would drive me to practice, even when I didn’t want to as a kid. He’s been incredible.
What moment in your life sticks out to you as one where you realized that you could actually play professionally?
DJ: Playing club soccer. It’s funny because I kind of hit puberty late. Everyone was a lot bigger than me and then all of a sudden, I remember in high school, I just grew four inches. Everyone was like, ‘What the hell? What happened to you?’ And once that happened, I was kind of the same size as everyone else and I sort of thought to myself, ‘You know what? I can do this if I just continue to work hard and train.’ And then I went over to UAB [University of Alabama, Birmingham] and started watching MLS games and thought, ‘I can be there if I put my mind to it.’
Did your coaches at UAB help guide you down toward the professional path?
DJ: Mike Getman was the coach at UAB and he’s a great person. He’s helped me a lot – he was always there for me and supported me. I feel like he had a lot to do with me even getting called in with Canada because there were a few guys on our team who were getting call-ups for the U-23s. I feel like Getman kind of told the coach, ‘Well, Dejan Jakovic is on our team, too. He’s a great player and you should probably take a look.’ And then I got invited into January camp where I just played really well and since then, I’ve been getting called in every single time.
You’re of the longest-tenured players here – when you look back, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in yourself, personally and professionally, since your first season?
DJ: I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a player. Obviously my first year when I came to DC, I was playing alongside Benny [current Head Coach Ben Olsen], you know? And now he’s been my coach and he’s done a great job. At first when I came here, I was really quiet. I know some guys are still getting on me that I need to talk more, but I feel like I’ve definitely turned more into a leader. I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with the guys on the team and what I bring to the team, both with Canada and D.C. United.
Your roommate, Chris Pontius, edges you out slightly for that longest-tenured player status. Do you guys sort of feel like you’ve grown up together, professionally?
DJ: The first couple years, I wouldn’t say I was close with Chris – we didn’t live together. But now that we’ve been living together, he’s like my brother and he’s like a family member. He’s definitely grown into an MLS All-Star and done a great job at D.C. United and I’m just happy to still be here. Hopefully, we can get another run at playoffs and maybe win an MLS Cup.
Bill Hamid is typically your roommate on the road, so how do Pontius and Hamid compare on the sharing close quarters side of things?
DJ: Bill might be loud on the field and in the locker room, but Bill is really laid-back and chill. I think we get along great. When we’re on the road, we watch Champions League games and stuff like that. Bill’s growing on me a lot and he’s in the backline, so we talk about certain situations in the games and I’m glad he’s my roommate.
What kind of growth/evolution have you seen from Bill since he signed as a Homegrown player a few years ago?
DJ: He’s always been vocal, but he’s definitely matured as a goalkeeper. He’s been outstanding for us thus far and just keeps maturing and growing as a goalie and an individual, so it’s nice to see him grow.
For yourself, what aspect of your game do you see as your biggest strength?
DJ: I feel like I read the game really well. Obviously, I’m fast and passing the ball out of the back, trying to find the midfield and the forwards.
After shutting the Red Bulls out on March 16, what’s it going to take from the team to put on another great defensive performance?
DJ: Well, I hope it’s not as defensive as it was in New York. I think we’re a bit of a different team when we play at home. We obviously play with a lot more confidence and we definitely keep the ball more. I think it’s hard not to do when we have our fans. They’ve been incredible throughout all these years, since DC came into the League. There’s just something about playing at home that makes you want it more. [New York] has some really good players, players that have played over in Europe and that have succeeded over there. So, keeping them in front of us, not giving up a lot of chances and staying together, compact as a unit, as a team, should bring us success.
Besides the obvious Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, who on the Red Bulls gives you guys the most trouble?
DJ: Well, it’s funny: Dax [McCarty]. Obviously, we’ve played with Dax [in DC], still stay in touch with him and he’s been awesome for them the last year and is playing really well. A lot of their offense runs through him, so if we get tighter on him and don’t give him as many touches, it’ll be a lot harder for them to create chances and keep possession.
On the non-soccer side of things, what’s your favorite thing to do to unwind?
DJ: Food. I’m a foodie. I love food, I enjoy food. We just went to Fogo de Chao – me, BMac [Brandon McDonald] and Chris [Pontius]. I don’t eat for four or five hours and then go there [laughs] and just stuff myself. But, I’m really low-key. I like to hang out with friends and enjoy good company.
So, DC Restaurant Week is big for you?
DJ: Yeah, we’re always asking ourselves, ‘What are we doing for dinner?’ There’s definitely some great restaurants in DC and up in Clarendon.
There have also been quite a few Jenga pictures on your and a few others’ Instagrams – where did this mini-obsession with Jenga arise?
DJ: Yeah, it’s just the Sundays we have off. It’s good times, it’s fun. We just started playing it. We just kind of hang out and talk and play Jenga – that’s definitely been the game. It’s quieted down a little bit, but yeah, it’s good. We’ve gotten really good – we have, like, 35 stacks going.
Who’s the best and who’s the worst at Jenga?
DJ: I’d have to say Chris [Pontius] is the worst. You gotta have a touch with your fingers, soft, and he’s just shoving his fingers in there and knocking it down. Not delicate, so that’s why his touch on the field is soft, I guess [laughs].