Haris Medunjanin: leading the charge

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Haris Medunjanin after CJ Sapong suffered a foul (Photo Credit Charlotte Thomas)

When a piece is missing, whether to a puzzle or a soccer team, the hole it vacates it is glaringly obvious to all. When Vincent Nogueira left the Union in the summer of 2016, the Union felt that absence in a major way. The team dropped from 1st place to 6th by the end of the season, narrowly securing the last playoff spot. In the 2017 offseason the Union signed Bosnian international Haris Medunjanin to fill the void. The experienced midfielder filled the role and then some. The tall forward, who began his career in Holland, has all the tools necessary for a star midfielder. From a man who has such an extensive career in Europe, ranging from AZ Alkmaar, to Real Valladolid, to Macabi Tel Aviv and Deportivo De La Coruña, it was a great signing for the Union. “It was always my dream to play in the United States”, Haris explained, “When I was on the national team with Bosnia, we traveled around through the United States, we’ve been to a lot of states and cities. The cities are amazing, we travel a lot and it’s nice to see a lot of different cities, I don’t know if I was in Europe I could see Salt Lake City or Columbus or places like this. The MLS is growing every year, its becoming more professional. I liked the move, I like it a lot over here, and I like the city so I’m happy here.”

To understand the Bosnian’s move and experience better, we have to look a bit into his past. Medunjanin was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but fled the war-torn nation with his mother at age 7. His family moved to the Netherlands, where Haris thrived as a soccer player. He made the AZ Alkmaar youth team, it was there he became the player he is today. “I liked that I was in the Dutch School. I think for every player I would recommend the Dutch School. It’s very important for every young player to have the basic technique for professional football; like controlling the ball, two touch, always playing a firm pass, looking in front of you, not just next to you. So I think it helped me a lot that I had the Dutch School.”

While at AZ Alkmaar Haris learned under the tutelage of one of the greatest soccer minds, Louis Van Gaal. “He’s so technical,” Haris said, “and he makes you improve as a player. He knows how to bring out your best qualities. He knows when to shout at you and when to not. He’s so good at technical things. He knows how you need to stand, where to come get the ball, and with him we played so dominant, because with him we played so well and kept the ball because we all knew what to do. He’s the first to give me a chance at the first team.”

Haris Medunjanin celebrating a great strike (Photo Credit Charlotte Thomas)

Medunjanin has since become a regular for the Bosnian National Team, making 50 appearances for the team including appearances at the World Cup. “It was a choice, because I was born in Bosnia,” Medunjanin reflected, “but for my family it’s nice that I play for the Bosnian National Team. At the time the Netherlands was a top national team, you needed to play in Europe at a top team to play for Holland. But I’m happy with my choice, I played in the World Cup. I got my goal to play in a tournament for the national team.”

Now, in Philadelphia, Haris is bringing his extensive experience to the Union, and his skills fit the team perfectly. A calm, collected, and composed midfielder, Medunjanin fits a role that every great team needs, a deep-lying playmaker. The Union previously tried to fill that void in 2016 through USMNT star Alejandro Bedoya. While a star turn for the Union, Bedoya didn’t quite fit the mold that Nogueira left. Bedoya, while an incredible acquisition, is more akin to a box-to-box player, or number 8. Medunjanin described his partnership with Bedoya as a mutually beneficial pairing. ” We cover each other. If I stay [back], he goes [forward], if he stays, I go. I usually stay because his quality is to get forward, and serve from in the lines or get behind the defense. He’s always good on the ball, he never loses [it]. It’s good that we have someone we can trust there, someone we know isn’t going to make a mistake, which makes it easy for us.”

Medunjanin hasn’t always played as a deep-lying midfielder, however he has adapted to his role with aplomb. “I always played with two midfielders, but I used to play more forward. Now I play more behind, to create from the back, not to shoot every ball.” Despite his desire to create instead of score, Medunjanin has shown he has a knack for scoring as well. “Sometimes, they want me to shoot from everywhere. If I’m 20 yards away, thats my spot. Sometimes you are too far and it’s very difficult to touch it right. But we have quick players in front so I always try to play them in, or play them between the lines so they can turn and go and then they can make the last pass.”

Medunjanin has shown great vision on the ball (Photo Credit Charlotte Thomas)

Medunjanin has proven himself dangerous with the ball in the attacking third, not just through scoring. With 8 assists Medunjanin leads the Union with chances created with 2.5 per game, 5th in MLS. But Medunjanin’s influences span much further than just threats at goal. His biggest influence on the team comes from his support from the back. “When I get the ball I try to play between the lines, to the number 10 or the wingers or find CJ over the defense. When I get the ball I need to look forward, that’s my specialty, my quality. I can give the ball away but then I made the mistake, it’s my mistake so I take this responsibility on my back. I’ve played a lot of games, I have a lot of experience so I take that responsibility on myself.”

Not only is Haris an asset offensively, but he supports the defense as well. While the front 4 are pushed up, Alejandro Bedoya is usually the one to advance, making forward runs to disrupt defenders. Medunjanin thus has the crucial job of staying back, and shielding the back four. While the midfielder might not be the fastest man on the field, he accomplishes his defensive responsibilities though positional awareness from experience. “I just stay in the middle and follow my man.” he explained, “some players leave the middle, so the number 10 is free. In a lot of years I’ve learned to play more disciplined, to follow the number 10. He is usually the best player in the team, so I stay between him [and the defense]. I know he is going to make the key pass. I don’t want him to do that. It’s not always necessary, but if I can stay behind him and force him to pass back, it’s a win for us. It forces someone else to make a key pass and gives the defense a chance to win the ball.”

Haris Medunjanin has taken Marcus Epps under his wing (Photo Credit Charlotte Thomas)

Medunjanin’s impact on the Union doesn’t just stop on the field, however. The well-traveled midfielder has taken it upon himself to work with some of the younger players to help them develop. He has specifically taken an interest in winger and 2nd round draft pick Marcus Epps. “I think he has so much potential,” Haris said about Epps, “but he needs to work on himself every day in training. I think his shooting could improve. As a winger, you need to have a good shot. You can only do so much 1 against 1, but I’ve been telling him ‘When you go inside you need to improve your left foot because there are a lot of goals there. They cannot keep you 1 against 1.’ He is a good kid, he needs to learn, but he wants to learn.”

Though the team struggled in the beginning of the season, it was obvious the impact Haris had on the team. His ability to play the ball from the back, and break presses helped the Union raise the level of play, even if results didn’t show it. The team started 0-4-4, winless in 8 games. A mix of new players and old didn’t immediately click, and players who performed well last season struggled to connect with the new players. “Everyone was playing for themselves,” Haris said about the beginning of the season. “But when we started to think and defend as a team, that’s when we improved.” The team did improve, going on a 6 game unbeaten streak after those 8 games. The Union, however, are still struggling to build out of the basement. “We didn’t take a lot of points from the first 8 games. If we took 2 or 3 wins from that we would be higher up.”

Medunjanin acknowledging a good run (Photo credit Charlotte Thomas)

Despite the poor start, the Union are still on the fringe of the playoff fight. The team is 6-0-1 in the last 7 home matches, and 0-1-5 in the last 6 on the road. 3 points from that last playoff spot the Union are fighting to stay in contention. But in the meantime the Union have 1 game at home before hitting the road. “Now we play 1 home game that we need to win to fight for the place.” Though the team continues to succeed at home, it is on the road where the Union truly struggle. The side has won just one road game, against DC United, drawing 3 and losing 7. “I don’t understand. We play at home so well, I don’t know why we can’t do it on the road.” Haris pondered, “I don’t know, maybe a little bit is pressure because we have only won one game on the road. We have 11 games left, 6 away, so we have to take some points away if we want to achieve playoffs. It’s not that the teams were better than us, but sometimes you lose because of little things, but that’s football sometimes, little mistakes.”

“Sometimes we struggle, because, I don’t know, we don’t have the confidence.” Medunjanin hypothesized, “I always tell them, play with confidence. When we play home, and even away we have good players. No team here is like Barcelona, always pressing you, so you have to play with confidence, because even if you lose the ball you have to try again.” Just 3 points from the last playoff spot, the Union need points from the road to make the final push. The woes and misfortunes from the first 8 games would be all but forgotten if the Union make the playoffs. Perhaps Medunjanin can bring the necessary experience to help lead the Union to a strong end of the season. And who knows, if the team peaks at just the right time, anything is possible.

 

 

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