Coming off his MLS debut in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at FC Dallas, Croatian defender Josip Mikulic , 24,was surprised to hear a number of people giving him “Man of the Match” honors.
“Really? Who?,” he asked.
Off the top of my head, I couldn’t remember, but looking back, readers of Guillermo Rivera’s Fire Confidential blog voted him second behind Uruguayan striker Gaston Puerari. Every mention of Mikulic in post-match reports was positive.
Perhaps it’s more a quiet consensus on “Man of the Match”?
Either way, the Croatian’s debut Saturday ushered in what has been a long year for the 6-2 defender, one in which he didn’t get paid by his former club, NK Zagreb and had to go to court to gain a release from his contract.
“NK Zagreb is in a very difficult situation,” he said. “The league in Croatia isn’t good like it is here. They don’t pay players and that is a big problem throughout Eastern Europe. I was happy on Saturday night, especially at the beginning of the match because of how many people were in Dallas. Back home I only played in front of 5,000 people so that was a nice difference.”
Before Fire fans start crack a joke about the attendance in Dallas, re-read the last line of that quote.
Mikulic’s identification came like it does for a lot of players, when his agent sent a highlight DVD of him playing to Fire Technical Director Frank Klopas last year. Klopas joined Carlos de los Cobos on a two-week trip to Europe last November to look at a number of players and the Bosnian-born Croatian defender was high on their list as they looked to rebuild an almost completely different back line.
“When coach and Frank came to Europe they came to see me in Zagreb,” he said. “We started having conversations and they called with a contract not too long after.”
Mikulic officially signed with the club on January 6, joining third-year Fire midfielder Baggio Husidic (Bosnia) and second-year midfielder Bratislav Ristic (Serbia) as the third player from the former Yugoslavia on the Fire roster. The trio then welcomed a fourth when another Croatian, midfielder Marko Maric joined from Greek club Skoda Xanthi.
Both Mikulic and Maric came up through the youth system at NK Zagreb.
An intimidating force in the back, Mikulic seems the prototypical player from Eastern Europe: Good fundamentals, steady on the ball, great size and a strong knowledge of the game, all of which have been helpful in being the director of the team’s new three-man backline which features also features veteran U.S. international Cory Gibbs and first round draft pick Jalil Anibaba.
“I feel the partnership with Cory and Jalil has been excellent so far. We have a good understanding of each other and have come together well.”
Though having gained a valuable road point at the home of last season’s MLS Cup finalists, Mikulic still looks at his first MLS match with some regret.
“I think we must still win that game. We had better chances overall, we made one mistake and gave up a goal, but we were also up a man for 35 minutes. Diego [Chaves] had another chance, Gaston [Puerari] had an opportunity and I had a chance in the last minute from a corner kick. I’m glad to get a point, but we feel we should have won.”
As the team returns to Toyota Park for Saturday’s Opening Day match vs. Sporting KC, Mikulic is among 12 newcomers on the roster that will hope to make their home debut. Unless injury pops up, the defensive trio featuring him, Gibbs and Anibaba is one of the most certain pieces in de los Cobos’ lineup.
“I hope that the stadium is full and I hope that we win, I know Section 8 will be there supporting us and I’m looking forward to playing in front of them and the people of Chicago for the first time.”
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall
Get out to TOYOTA PARK to watch Josip Mikulic make his home debut this Saturday, March 26 at 3pm CT as the Fire host Mexican international Omar Bravo Sporting KC at TOYOTA PARK. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased by calling 888.MLS.FIRE or by clicking here.