For any player, there are few things that matter more than comfort when it come to fitting in with a team. If a player isn’t settled or can’t get adjusted to a new group of teammates, a new city, or a new coaching staff, he is not likely to perform up to his potential.
That was the case for Dilly Duka, who spent the last few months without a club after being released by the Montreal Impact where he made 41 appearances over two seasons.
"I had different opportunities; different people reached out to me," Duka said of his time off. "But over the years when you play this game, no matter what league you play in, you want to find the system that you think you’d fit in. You want to find the atmosphere that you’d be comfortable in."
He believes he has found that by signing with Columbus Crew SC and for multiple reasons.
The first reason is Duka’s familiarity with the city. The 26-year old was drafted by Crew SC eighth overall in the 2010 SuperDraft and spent three seasons with the Black & Gold before being traded to the Chicago Fire for future Impact teammate Dominic Oduro. While he admits things have changed since he left, there is a sense of comfort in returning to Ohio’s capital city.
"I have a lot of friends outside of soccer in this city and it was good to see them the past couple of days," the midfielder explained. "I know what it takes to live in Columbus and I think it’s going to be an easy transition."
For the club, and head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter, Duka’s experience not only in Columbus, but in Major League Soccer made him an appealing option.
"I think his familiarity with the league," Berhalter said about the advantages of his new signing. "If we bring in a new player from abroad, we’re still dealing with that adaptation period. There’s going to be a period regardless and for Dilly, now it’s just a question of getting him fit. And we think he’s not too far away from playing a role."
On top of his experience in Columbus and around the league, it is Duka’s familiarity with some of his teammates that makes the adjustment much easier. During his first stint with the Black & Gold, where he made 45 regular season appearances (32 starts), scoring two goals and registering five assists, Duka played alongside midfielders Federico Higuain, Tony Tchani, Justin Meram, and Ethan Finlay. All four of those players remain with the club and are part of the reason the New Jersey native elected to return.
"There’s a couple guys on the team that I played with — you keep in touch with your former teammates," he said. "And just the positive stuff they’ve been saying about the Crew in the past couple years just made it really appealing."
Another reason, and perhaps the most important, is the fit to the system, something both Duka and Berhalter don’t see as an issue.
"What I got from (talking with Gregg) was, he’s just looking for players that want to be on the ball and could play a variety of different position," Duka said. "I think that suits me and my style. So it just seemed really comfortable meeting him, talking to him, and now I’m signed and now I’m looking forward to actually training with the group."
Berhalter agrees. When asked what made Duka an attractive addition, the head coach quickly pointed to his versatility.
"We think he can play a number positions," he said. "We’ve seen him play No. 10, No. 7, No, 11 and we like that. I think it gives us options, especially given some of the personnel we’ve had missing the last couple weeks."
It’s not just Berhalter who sees this potential in Duka. Captain and central defender Michael Parkhurst faced Duka multiple times since joining Crew SC two seasons ago and reiterated Berhalter’s comments from on-field experience.
"He’s a guy that fits into the system well," Parkhurst said. "He can play anywhere along the front, not maybe striker but the other three front guys. He’s got good movement, good one on one. When he plays wide, he tucks inside very well. He just pops up all over the field."
With the number of injuries Columbus is currently dealing with, finding a player that can fit in well and fit in quickly is important. With the transfer window not opening for nearly two weeks, this move was "lucrative" for the Black & Gold.
"It’s a guy that we can get playing as soon as he’s fit enough," Berhalted said, indicating Duka is still a couple of weeks away from full fitness. "It’s a guy that we identified as being a strong fit for the way we play. And his versatility. So if you add all those things, for us it was a guy that we wanted to bring in.
"Once we get him up to speed to that and once he gets fit, I think you’ll be surprised what you see because (he has) very good movement between the lines, very good on the half turn, good 1 v. 1, ability to pass the ball. So I think it’s an interesting acquisition for us."
The final reason Duka makes sense for Crew SC is his desire to win. Despite seven years at the professional level, and playing on some good teams, the closest the midfielder has come to a championship was during his rookie season and that is beginning to eat at him.
"I want to win. I want to win something," Duka said passionately. "When I was in Columbus, my first year, we went to the Open Cup Final, but I want to win... I’d like to bring a championship, no matter what competition it is, to the team I’m playing for right now. So that’s important for me."
Now on a team that made it to last year’s MLS Cup Final, dispatching Duka and Montreal along the way, the midfielder might be able to make that dream come true. With Columbus currently sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, four points back of the playoff line, Duka and his new team are facing an uphill climb.
Despite the battle, Duka is happy to be the newest member of Crew SC. It’s a city he knows and enjoys with teammates he is familiar with and a system that fits his style of play. Most importantly it’s a team that wants to help him succeed and that’s why Duka is eager to get back on the MAPFRE Stadium field in the black and gold again.
"I think I fit in really well," he said. "This team has been successful in the past couple years and I definitely want to add to that. I want to be a part of it and I want to add to it."