SULJEVIC & DEREZIC: AFC CLEVELAND’S SLAVIC CONNECTION
Often when you see a pair of players who have good chemistry on the field, you wonder if they’ve been playing together for years or if they just happen to click with each other. In the case of Admir Suljevic and Mike Derezic, their chemistry is the result of nearly two decades playing together; a partnership forged as much by their time spent side by side in midfield as by their friendship off the field.
Like any good tale, this one begins a long time ago, in a land far away. In late 1997, Admir Suljevic and his family moved to the U.S. after spending six years in Germany. They had left their native home of Bosnia-Herzegovina six years earlier in an effort to escape the civil war and when it came time to move again his parents chose Cleveland, OH since they had relatives there.
“When I first came to the country I didn’t know a lick of English, so it was tough,” recalls Suljevic. “When you come into a country not knowing anything, you’re nervous and scared, especially as a little kid. Thankfully in the East Side [of Cleveland] there was a Croatian community and they speak the same language – we all speak the same language – so they took us in.”
Derezic remembers meeting Suljevic and how their friendship began. “He didn’t know much English but it didn’t really matter to us because we both spoke the same language. I remember, it was [playing] indoor (soccer) for Croatia Cleveland. We started playing when we were in the youth ranks.”
Derezic makes it clear, however, that while some may think that he took Suljevic under his wing, that’s far from the truth. They were just friends. They liked doing the same things, they liked spending time together, and because of the commonality in language and culture they wanted to spend as much time together as possible. Culture, you’ll see, played a large role in the friendship of these two guys.
“I think we just kind of did the same things. We were in the same culture, so I think we took to each other,” says Derezic. “I don’t think I took him under my wing and I don’t think he took me under his wing. I just think that as kids we helped each other and took care of each other.”
“Ever since that we’ve played together almost our whole lives,” says Suljevic. “At college too. [At] Cleveland State we played together.”
Not surprisingly, after so many years playing together the two have developed an understanding in midfield that is almost psychic, bringing to mind other partnerships like that of Xavi and Iniesta.
“When we were younger it wasn’t the same but the last, I would say five [or] six years we’ve really clicked when it comes to that,” shares Suljevic. “We know exactly where each other are going to be the whole time and that’s just how we’ve been playing, trying to make the game as simple as we can. That’s our style.”
Derezic feels the same, admitting that he often feels weird when he’s not playing with Suljevic. “He and I just have an understanding of each other and it make it easier when he’s on the field with me,” he says. “I can’t explain it, it’s something that’s just there. Sometimes I don’t even have to look on the field, I know he’s gonna be there. It definitely feels a little different when he’s not on the field,” he adds.
Suljevic also dislikes playing without Derezic. “We’re pretty much like brothers so we like playing together as much as we can. Being without each other is always different. When we’re on the field we’d rather play with each other.”
But as close as they are, they have very different roles within Carter Poe’s system. On the field you will notice that Suljevic plays as an attacking midfielder, while Derezic plays as a holding midfielder. This wasn’t always the case though, as the two used to play side by side as attacking midfielders in their youth. It was at Cleveland State University hat the duo morphed into their current state, each becoming the ying to the other’s yang.
“That whole him more offensive and me more defensive, that all started in college,” shares Derezic. “I was originally an attacking midfielder as well with him [Suljevic] but my transition into a holding midfielder started in college, primarily. It just worked and coaches really liked us in those two positions so they kept us there and we developed into what we are today.”
Suljevic believes that Derezic’s roots as an attacking player give him an edge in his current position. “Since college he’s been playing holding mid for us and he has a vision to the game,” says Suljevic “He’s very strong in the air, he’s a strong guy on the ball – 50-50 tackles he can win – but his distributing to the back and switching play has been huge for us, specially this season.”
Derezic was equally flattering when it came to describing his friend, who also serves as the Royals’ skipper. “When we’re in the attacking third of the field his strength is finding that final pass for someone to score for us. He’s an assisting machine,” he claims.
With the NPSL National Final on the horizon, the two players feel that, should they win, this will be their greatest achievement – both individually and collectively.
“If we were to win I think that would be the greatest achievement besides when we went to the NCAA tournament with Cleveland State in 2012,” states Suljevic. “I think this will be just as special if we do achieve that.”
“It’s for sure going to be my greatest soccer accomplishment to this point,” adds Derezic “Even just being on this position is an accomplishment but I won’t consider it my greatest accomplishment if I don’t win Saturday.”
Given the amount of time they’ve played together and the number of teams they’ve played for, their words carry a lot of weight. It’s obvious that winning silverware is important to them. But beyond winning, Derezic feels that this is a way for him to repay his family for always being there for him and for the efforts made over the years so he could follow his passion.
“Obviously my parents will be there and that’s just something a kid always dreams about, lifting a title in front of his parents. This will be my kind of thanks to them for always being there for me. My dad used to pay when I was a kid, used to take me all the time to these games when I was a youth playing for Croatia Cleveland. All that time and money he spent… my mom staying at home with my sister holding down the fort at home, making sure when we came home we had food, that I wasn’t hungry,” shares Derezic.
“This is very special for me, because I never got to have the opportunity to even lift a title at home in front of my fans in my city. I was born here, I was raised here, so this is very special. And I know, I know for sure everyone on this team will feel the same Saturday night. It’s a chance to show Cleveland that soccer is dominant here, that there is a soccer team, that there is a sense of a family – a soccer community here. I know it’s going to be very special.”
I’m not a mind reader, but given their connection, I am willing to bet that Suljevic feels the same way. The two have come a long way since their Cleveland Croatia days, but have managed to not wander too far from home.