There’s a level of excitement to a Major League Soccer team signing a player from Europe. After all, some of the greatest athletes in the world take their craft to England, Spain and Italy to perform in front of tens of thousands of fans in-stadium and millions more across the globe. For all the excitement, sometimes the start of the relationship between MLS club and new acquisition is bumpy.
The Columbus Crew has made a few of those acquisitions over the years. It is often thought that newcomers to MLS that it takes new players, specifically defenders, some time to adjust to the league. But why is that exactly?
It’s an important question, especially in 2022 with the Black & Gold’s signing of Australian international Miloš Degenek. On paper, it’s an explosive signing. Degenek’s won multiple league titles with Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, played against some of the biggest teams in Europe, won in the UEFA Champions League and was named to a World Cup roster.
Fortunately, the Crew has two experienced center backs in Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams who have some perspective — albeit different — on adjusting to MLS.
Mensah came into the league in 2017 and did not resemble the stoic, MLS Cup-winning, center back that’s adored by the fanbase today. He struggled mightily that first season, including receiving two red cards in the first half of the year. Initially, the response from the supporters was anything but positive.
Thankfully, the Black & Gold front office didn’t overreact to one bad season by the Ghanian and trusted he would adjust to the league. While forwards and attack-minded players receive the benefit of the doubt, defense requires consistency, and every mistake on the backline garners more attention than a miss-hit in the penalty area or a cross that sails too wide.
Spoiler alert, but things turned out fine for Mensah following his tough beginning of the 2017 season. Mensah, the club’s captain, is now going into his fifth season with Columbus and is an automatic start on the backline. Even that 2017 season ended with Mensah’s form adjusting to the league and earning himself a nomination as MLS Newcomer of the Year.
For Degenek’s addition to MLS, Mensah isn’t worried.
“I have watched a couple of his games with the national team, you can see he commands his backline and he’s going to be a great piece for us,” the Ghanian said about his new teammate. “We’re going to be there, we’re going to be available for him and help him to adapt to the league as soon as possible.”
Somebody that’s seen this story play out from the other side of things is Williams. Entering his 11th season in the league, and ninth with the Black & Gold, Williams doesn’t believe the adjustment for new players has to do with a player’s skill on the field.
“One of the things that I always hear, and I can attest to, is just the travel,” said Williams. “America is such a big country that you could have one game on a Saturday in Columbus and then on Wednesday, you’re playing out in San Jose and then Sunday, you’re back in Columbus.”
Putting Williams’ example in perspective, a trip from Columbus, Ohio to San Jose, California is a 2,089-mile one-way trip. To add even more perspective, for a domestic season in Serbia, where Degenek played much of his career, it’s 96 miles from the northernmost city of Subotica to one of the southernmost cities Trogviste. Even adding in a Champions League match trip from Belgrade to Liverpool, England is just over 1,207 miles.
Fortunately, travel in MLS has improved. Teams are now allowed to take more charters, specifically on longer flights. Also, from Degenek’s angle, he’s no stranger to travel. After all, Australia isn’t necessarily close to Europe.
Another area that sticks out to Williams is climate adjustment. Degenek’s played on the European calendar of matches between August and May. He’ll join a league that plays in its country’s coldest and warmest months. Consider that on Feb. 26, when the Black & Gold opens the MLS regular season against the Vancouver Whitecaps, it could be below freezing. A week later, on March 5, Columbus will make that 2,089-mile trip to San Jose where it averages in the high 60s to low 70s.
Heat to someone that grew up in Australia is also not too big of a concern, but it’s the sheer number of areas that require an adjustment that can be overwhelming. Degenek will join the Crew in Charleston, South Carolina for the Carolina Challenge Cup. In the span of fewer than two months, he will have traveled from Serbia to Australia, from Australia to Oman and then join the Crew in the United States. From there, Degenek has to get to know his teammates, head coach Caleb Porter’s system, then fly to Columbus in the winter to start the season. Then fly to San Jose. All while learning about this new league.
That is roughly 30,000 miles of travel when you include the Black & Gold returning home from San Jose. Degenek is in the middle of a whirlwind.
For all the headaches an itinerary like this could cause to a human, there’s one consistent throughout all of it.
“As far as gameplay and all that, I think Miloš is a high-level center back, international player,” said Williams. “He’s played over all over the world so, to me, I’m not worried about that for him. Everything outside of soccer is probably the most difficult to adjust to.”