Emanuel Pogatetz has been around the block. The 32-year old central defender has played in Europe's top leagues and has 61 caps for his native Austria, yet he did not make the impact many thought when he signed with Columbus Crew SC last September.
The man nicknamed "Mad Dog" arrived late in the season to help Crew SC defensively after the departure of Giancarlo Gonzalez. But Pogatetz only played 52 minutes in 2014, not living up to his own expectations.
"At the start, it was definitely the lack of fitness because I didn't have any training for three months.," Pogatetz responded to why he didn't see much of the field after arriving in Columbus.
"After like four or five weeks, I caught up, but then the team was doing really well and it was difficult for Gregg to change anything."
The Black and Gold were one of the hottest teams in the league at the end of the season, winning eight of their last 11 games and losing only one. With the team on a roll, hea coach Gregg Berhalter elected to stick with the center back pairing of Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl.
"I understood the decision was a team decision and I had to get on with it and it was fine for me," Pogatetz explained.
The defender made his debut on October 11 against the Philadelphia Union, playing just seven minutes in a substitute role. The following week he came on at halftime against the New York Red Bulls, but did not play in the season finale or the MLS Cup Playoffs.
It wasn't just fitness and chemistry with his teammates that hurt Pogatetz's minutes a year ago. The center back was adjusting to a new style of play and Berhalter's system is not the easiest to learn. His cameo appearances gave him time to get acclimated, but it wasn't until recently that he really began to grasp all the nuances of the system.
"How we defend because our offensive style of soccer, it's sometimes different kind of defending when we go backwards because we open a lot," Pogatetz said. "It's some things I had to adjust to on the defending point of view, but also going forward, having the ball. We had a long time to work on it through this preseason and I'm feeling very comfortable now that I know what to do and how I can help the team."
Pogatetz worked with his teammates throughout the offseason and, after a successful preseason, is likely to finally earn his starting spot alongside Parkhust when the team opens the season against the Houston Dynamo Saturday night. This is a moment he's been anticipating since his arrival.
"I'm excited to finally play a full 90 minutes for [Crew SC]," he said this week. "It's not the same like I would say like a debut, but obviously I'm excited. Also, after the long break, now to get back into it, to see where we stand, to see where I'm personally at, it will be a game I'm looking forward to."
The Black and Gold are hopeful Pogatetz is the answer at center back. He adds a physical presence they lacked a year ago and provides height to a relatively small back line that will be helpful not only on crosses, but set pieces as well.
"Hopefully we can be successful through set pieces," he said.
"We have [Kei Kamara] and myself and also a few of the other players. We have a bigger team now and hopefully we can do well on set pieces on both ends. Hopefully balls will fall for us. Sometimes you also need luck on those situations, but basically we should be able to score a few goals and be confident we can do so."
The Black and Gold were one of the better defensive teams statistically a year ago and Pogatetz wants to help make the team even better. At the end of the day, all that matters to him is the result.
"I think we play an attractive type of football, that's what the fans want to see, and last season was successful," he said.
"This season, hopefully we can add a little bit to it so we can be as successful as last season. From the defensive point of view, of course we want to get clean sheets but if we win our games 3-2, I'm also happy. It doesn't have to be 1-0 all the time."
As they say, a win is a win.