WASHINGTON --- D.C. United coach Ben Olsen was stunned to see a familiar face as he walked into his team’s RFK Stadium locker room in the moments leading up to their most recent home game, a 2-0 loss to San Jose on Oct. 9.
That face? Defender Dejan Jakovic, who was supposed to be absent due to his participation in Canada’s international friendly against Ukraine on the previous day, half a world away from RFK.
“Benny was surprised to see me,” Jakovic said later. “He was like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Amazingly, the unassuming center back’s long voyage back from his country’s creditable 2-2 draw in far eastern Europe had proceeded smoothly enough for him to attend his club’s match. He wisely refrained, however, from suiting up for a second high-level match in as many days.
“It would’ve been tough. It was a 10-hour flight and I’d just played 90 minutes,” he said. “It would’ve been really hard.”Olsen might still have entertained the idea, even briefly, of putting Jakovic in uniform that night, given the Croatian-born defender’s nearly-automatic place in the United lineup. Despite missing a large chunk of the season due to a broken clavicle, the gifted 25-year-old ranks fifth on the team in minutes played this year, and he retains a prime spot in the club’s plans despite the back line’s mediocre stats since his arrival in Feb. 2009.
It seems increasingly likely that Jakovic will also play a major role in his country’s 2011 calendar. He’s earned regular call-ups when healthy, and is on track to win his 10th senior cap when the Canadians meet Greece in a February friendly that will give head coach Stephen Hart another chance to evaluate his personnel options ahead of next summer’s Gold Cup.
“You know, we’re moving forward,” Jakovic said. “There’s a lot of players being called in the last two camps that I’ve been into. Stephen Hart is just trying to see what’s out there, bringing in as many players as he can from all over the world and building on that, and looking forward to the World Cup qualifiers coming up soon.”
Like Jakovic himself, Canada’s national team has yet to reach its full potential, and one of the most talented squads in Canadian history fell disappointingly short in the last World Cup cycle. But with more and more players honing their skills in MLS thanks to the league’s northward growth, the nation has cause for optimism in the run-up to qualifying for FIFA World Cup 2014.
“We’ve played all of these teams in the Gold Cup,” Jakovic said of his country’s CONCACAF rivals. “We beat Costa Rica, we beat Jamaica. So these are games that definitely could be won. With just a little bit more preparation, I think it’s possible.”
With a growing talent pool and two more domestic clubs set to join MLS in the next two years, Canada will hope to climb closer to regional powerhouses Mexico and the United States in the years ahead. Regular international duty can disrupt a player’s club schedule, but Jakovic is intent on making the most of his opportunities.
“It’s always nice when you get called up,” he said. “The more games that I play internationally, the better. These are some good teams that we’re playing, some great players. Obviously when I come back to D.C., it could only help me.”