One short name belongs on any short list of star athletes who passed through Tacoma early on their path to professional glory: Preki.
His full name is Preki Radosavljevic. And any quick mental flash of Tacoma sports images from the 1980s would include him balancing on the boards along the indoor soccer pitch of the Tacoma Dome, arms raised in celebration of another goal for the Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
After his time in Tacoma, Preki went on to play in England with Premier League and first division clubs. He then returned to the States, where he became one of the best-known pioneers of Major League Soccer and a member of the U.S. National Team.
Now, he is establishing himself as a successful coach in MLS. He will direct Western Conference leader Chivas tonight against Seattle Sounders FC at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
“It was a special time for me: my first home away from home, if you want to call it that way,” Preki said this week, recalling his years in Tacoma. “There’s nothing but good things that I can remember from my time spent in that area. I was there for five years (1985-90), and my wife is a Puyallup girl. I have very good memories.”
For those who filled the Tacoma Dome for those few years when MISL games could outdraw NBA games, the feeling is mutual.
“It was a magical time,” former Stars coach Alan Hinton said. “The city of Tacoma came alive. (Steve) Zungul was a big leader and a big draw, but everybody really, really started to fall in love with Preki. When he scored a goal, he’d jump up on the side of the board, and it was genuine affection for the adoration he was beginning to receive.”
Even that was a long leap for the native of Yugoslavia, who somehow found his best contract opportunity half a world away in the Pacific Northwest.
He got off to a bad start with several of his Tacoma teammates due to some combination of his style, his skill and his unfamiliarity with the language and the culture. But Hinton said he put a stop to that, telling the Stars that if they were going to win – if the franchise was even going to remain in town – Preki would have to contribute.
The team began to win. And it began to draw fans, highlighted by a MISL-record crowd of 21,728 that filled the Tacoma Dome on June 20, 1987, as the Dallas Sidekicks edged the Stars, 4-3 in overtime for the league championship.
After 1992, the Stars and the league were done. But Preki went on to bigger things: two English seasons with Everton, one in Portsmouth. Then he moved on to MLS where over 10 seasons he became an eight-time all-star and the league’s only two-time MVP. He registered 79 goals and 112 assists and won an MLS championship with Kansas City in 2000.
Preki gained U.S. citizenship in 1996 and played 28 games for the national team from 1996-2001, including two in the 1998 World Cup in France.
“He was a pretty quiet leader,” said Sounders technical director Chris Henderson, who played with Preki in Kansas City, Miami and on the national team. “He wanted the ball, and you could see that he loved the game.”
Even Preki didn’t see himself as a coach until his started coaching his children in youth soccer. From there, his career rocketed as fast as the ball used to come off his left foot.
He joined Chivas in 2006 as an assistant under Bob Bradley and was promoted to the top job the next season when Bradley left to coach the national team.
Preki’s first Chivas club finished atop the Western Conference with a 14-7-8 record, and he was selected MLS coach of the year.
“He’s very, very committed,” Hinton said. “He’s a nice guy, but he can be tough. He seems to be doing a very nice job coaching. I think in this area everybody’s really proud of him.”
Chivas takes a 3-0-1 record into its first date with the Sounders and stands as the only unbeaten team in the West.
“We’re just taking one game at a time, we’re trying to keep our feet on the ground and not get ahead of ourselves,” Preki said. “We know that there are a lot of quality teams in MLS. We are happy that we’re at the top, and we’re going to do the best we can to stay where we are.”
Preki said he sees enough talent on the Sounders roster that he isn’t surprised at their 3-1-0 start.
And he said he certainly isn’t surprised by Seattle’s league-leading attendance figures. After all, he’s heard the roar of Puget Sound crowds before.
“I always knew … they had some huge soccer audience in that area,” he said. “So, I knew the franchise had a good potential. It was just a matter of time until (MLS) put a team there. And now when they actually came into the league we see the success they’re having.”
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid announced after practice Friday that he plans to give Chris Eylander his first start today in place of No. 1 goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who is ineligible due to receiving a red card last week. … Henderson, who attended Cascade High School in Everett, was inducted this week into the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Fame.
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (3-1-0, 9 pOINTS) AT CHIVAS USA (3-0-1; 10 pts.)
7:30 p.m., Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
TV: Ch. 5. Radio: 97.3-FM, and in Spanish on 1210-AM.
Head-to-head: This is the first meeting. The Sounders will return to Chivas on June 6, and Chivas will visit Seattle on Sept. 19. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid is 1-3-2 vs. Chivas.
Team leaders: For Seattle, Goals: 3 Fredy Montero; Assists: 3, Osvaldo Alonso; Shots: 11 Montero; Shots on goal: 6 Montero. For Chivas, G: 2 Eduardo Lillingston/Paulo Nagamura; A: 2 Gerson Mayen; S: 6, Atiba Harris/Sacha Kljestan; SOG: 5 Kljestan.
Schmid’s scouting report: “Chivas obviously is a good team: They haven’t lost any games. I know everybody’s talking about they got some guys injured; but those guys have been injured for a while, so they got a team rhythm with the guys that they’re playing right now. And they still have a good nucleus of veteran players with Carey Talley, and Jesse Marsch. … Nagamura got a red card the last game, so he won’t be playing against us, but there’s a good nucleus of players. Sacha Kljestan is a very important player for their team. He’s been healthy all season. They move the ball around fairly well.”
Notes: Chivas is coached by Preki, a former standout player with the Tacoma Stars. . … Conference-leading Chivas is the only unbeaten team in the MLS West. … Seven Chivas players are out due to injury and Justin Braun (knee) and Maykel Galindo (sports hernia surgery) are doubtful. Among the sidelined players is Claudio Suarez (calf strain), who has the most appearances in Mexican national team history. … Seattle has allowed one goal, fewest in MLS. … A win or a draw today would give the Sounders the best expansion record after five games in MLS history. Evan a loss would match the Miami Fustion’s 3-2 start in 1998. … Former USL Sounder Chris Eylander is expected to make his MLS debut, starting in place of No. 1 goalkeeper Kasey Keller who is ineligible after receiving a red card last week. … This will be Seattle’s first game on natural grass.
Next: 7:30 p.m. April 25, vs. San Jose Earthquakes, Qwest Field.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune