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Q&A: Montenegro International Emrah Klimenta

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition we spoke with Emrah Klimenta. A native of Montenegro, Klimenta moved to Northern California and played his club soccer for East Bay United and Mustang SC. The defender then bounced around the professional ranks of Europe before playing for Sacramento Republic FC in the USL, where his strong efforts led to a call-up to the Montenegro National Team. Klimenta has played seven times for his country and most recently completed his club season with San Diego Loyal under first-time manager Landon Donovan. 

NorCal: How did you fall in love with the game of soccer?

Klimenta: You hear everyone saying that it dates back to when they’re super young, like three or four, but for me it was the same exact thing. My grandpa on my mom’s side was a professional soccer player in Serbia. This was way back in the day when it was still Yugoslavia. He played in the second division and had a stint in the top league as well. He’s the one who introduced me to it. He was always watching soccer on TV and it was integrated with me as well. I didn’t really start loving the sport or really playing it until I moved to the States. I was born in Montenegro but due to the war moved around a lot. I lived in Germany from ages four to eight or nine and I played there but I never played club soccer. It was always in the streets or in the park with friends or at school, but never any club soccer until I moved to the States. When I came here, I started playing for Bay Oaks and that’s when I really said, “wow, I’m good at this sport and I really like this sport.” The love for the game and how I started with it, was all due to my grandpa. My dad played as well, but he had an injury when he was 16 or 17 so he had to stop playing himself, but everyone is crazy about this sport. It’s definitely something that I was born into and something I’ve been a part of since I was younger with my dad and grandpa and the rest of my family loving the sport.

NorCal: You played club soccer here, but didn’t play in college and didn’t make your professional debut in the United States with Sacramento Republic FC until you were 23. What happened in between all of that time?

Klimenta: My senior year of high school I had the opportunity to go to Slovakia and train with a professional team called MSK Zilina. They were in the top division there, played in the Europa League regularly, and the Champions League one year. They’re a pretty big team in Slovakia and so I went over there when I was 17 during winter break with my dad and trained with them for 10 days and after that they said that they wanted to sign me so I had to make a decision, a tough one for me to make. Do I sign the contract? Do I leave school early? Do I go chase this dream of mine that I’ve had since I was a young kid or do I finish high school, go to college, and take that route? At that time I only had UC Davis, Chico State, and a couple of the CSU Los Angeles schools that were interested. I didn’t really have big, big schools interested at the time. It was only after I came back that UC Berkeley approached me along with a couple of other schools who were all offering me scholarships. I had to make a big decision and as a 17-year-old, it was tough. My parents told me that ultimately it was down to me to decide, but that it was hard to pass up a full ride scholarship, especially at Berkeley, where I would have been close to home and have gotten a good education and played some good soccer. I ultimately chose to go to Slovakia. I came back home after the 10-day training with the team, decided that I wanted to make this leap and move to Europe and I had half a year left of high school. Luckily enough, I needed credits in one class to be able to graduate in the summer. There was a teacher at my high school who really liked me — it was econ that I needed to finish — and he said, “you know what, if you take this econ book and do class once a week online and read the chapters and answer questions, write an essay, and do a final test, we can work it that way for you to finish school.” I did that and when I was in Europe, I completed it. I was able to get my high school degree, but these were where the complications started, where some of the politics of football came into play. I moved to Slovakia and signed a contract and everything. Within the first two weeks — you get paid twice a month on the 1st and the 15th — I didn’t get my paycheck. A month passed by and I didn’t get another paycheck so I was wondering what was going on. My agent at the time called them to ask what’s going on. They said, “well, he hasn’t really been playing, he hasn’t been playing well in training, the team has been losing, so we’re not paying anybody.” In certain smaller countries in Europe, if you don’t play well or you don’t win games, these mafia bosses, if you will, they refuse to pay you. You can take it up with FIFA or go a different route. So I didn’t get paid for the first two months, three months, and my dad was pissed off. He actually flew into town and told them to either pay me what I was due or release me and pay what I was due, or else we would go to FIFA…other guys were threatening that too. So they paid me out and from there I got in touch with one of my mom’s uncle’s really good friends who was an agent just starting out in Germany. So from Slovakia I went to Germany and I tried out for a couple of teams. 1860 Munich, I was there for a couple of weeks. I was young, I had just turned 18 so I was still eligible to play with the U19s, with the second team, but at 1860 Munich, they didn’t have any space at the residency. Then I went to FC Ingolstadt where I signed and I was there for two years. I played for the U19s, won promotion to the Bundesliga with them, made my debut with their first team in a cup game. The year I left we got promoted from the third to the second Bundesliga. I had an opportunity to go to Switzerland with Young Boys in the first division, which is a huge club in the capital of Switzerland. I trained with them for 10 days and they were offering me a contract. At this point, I was 20-years-old, not eligible for the academy or any of that. In Switzerland there’s this weird rule where as a foregin guy — I have dual citizenship, I have US citizenship and Montenegrin citizenship, but Montenegro isn’t in the EU and to get a contract anywhere in the EU or in this case Switzerland, which is neutral, was a lot tougher. They had to pay foregin players somewhere along the lines of 200 or 250,000 Francs (a year) in order for them to live in the country and these guys, they liked me, but they weren’t willing to pay a 20-year-old who isn’t really established that kind of money. So that kind of fell through. I didn’t want to come back to the States because I told myself, “I’m not leaving here until I sign somewhere, until something happens, I refuse to leave, I will stay here and grind, grind, grind,” because at this point, I kind of got a taste of what it’s like in Europe. I come from Europe and I just love everything about it, the cities, how they are, how they’re structured…so I have family in Turkey so I went there to stay with my aunt and uncle for a little bit, continue to train there, continue to work out and I got an opportunity with Istanbul BB who are in the first division and playing in the Champions League. That’s the club I went and trialed for and trained with, but back then they were nowhere near what they are now. They didn’t have the big owners, they didn’t have the big names. Forty-five minutes into my first training session and I’m feeling good, I’m playing well, the coaches are impressed, and 45 minutes into it, I tore my ACL. So that was kind of the end of the road for me when it came to Europe. At least that’s what I thought. I came back to the States for surgery and to recover and then I went back to Germany for six months, I was in Sweden for three months, I was in Portugal for a month. I went through these trial processes and trainings and being on practice squads. I tried to get a contract, but in Europe if you don’t sign in the transfer window, you can’t sign throughout the year. So I was just training and living there. After so many months of just being frustrated, getting shut down, going from place to place, I finally decided to go back home and look for other options and see what else was out there for me. At this point I’m 21, I’m back at home, I’m playing Sunday league in San Francisco, I enrolled in DVC Community College. I was still training and working out and playing and hoping for something else to come about. My agent at the time was still looking for things for me in Europe and other places and nothing was really coming about with that so then I started playing professional indoor. There was Bay Area Rosal, who were newly-formed and I got approached by a couple of my buddies in the Bay Area who played college soccer in the area and they asked if I wanted to play with them. It was all cash, it paid pretty well, so I said, “why not? Gotta keep the dream alive.” I was 22 at this point, kind of getting over it, I didn’t really want to play indoor anymore and I had to figure out what I was actually going to do with my life. Do I continue with school and do the indoor thing? Or do I just completely quit soccer and focus on school and take that route. One day my dad saw this tryout for Sac Republic and he heard Preki was going to be the coach. He’s heard the name “Preki” before. Obviously Preki’s from Serbia, my dad is from Montenegro. Preki had a career that was up and down, he was in MLS for a while, played for the national team, there were all these things and my dad said, “why not give it a go?” He said, “you already have the fact that you’re from the same country on your side, you’re a good player, give it a go, one last try, one last push.” I told my dad, “I don’t know if I want to continue doing this, I don’t know if I can take another rejection.” He said, “Emrah, you’re never going to know if you don’t try.” He paid the entry fee for the open tryout. I went to the tryout and played well but Preki wasn’t there. It was his daughter’s birthday or something so he flew out to be there. It was only (technical director) Graham Smith who was there. I got called to another open tryout where Preki was there and this was the last open tryout before the invite-only tryout that lasted a week long. The tryout was Saturday/Sunday and then there was a week-long combine thing which went from Monday to Friday. I literally drove back home from Davis to the Bay Area to Walnut Creek, packed up a bag, ate dinner with my parents, drove back that same exact night to Davis and then Monday went back out to training. After that week-long trial, I got offered a contract from Sac Republic. In short, from 17 to 23, it was up and down and kind of all over the place.

NorCal: It sounds like there were a lot of things that weren’t in your control that went against you. Were there ever any points where you thought that you might not make it as a professional?

Klimenta: Yeah, of course. As a 17, 18-year-old, getting offered a professional contract, you feel like, “okay, here it is, it’s happening, due to hard work, my career is only going to go up from here.” So reality hit me fast after the Switzerland tryout. I was so close to signing with this team in a beautiful country, this beautiful city when I was told that they couldn’t sign me because of this reason. It was sort of like, “well, they’re not signing me because I’m not good enough, they can’t sign me because of other reasons.” So I still had hope and still was going to grind it out and still push. I was still young. Not until I tore my ACL did I think (I might not make it). I wanted to prove to myself that I could come back and give it one more shot, a last push. Then I went to Germany a couple of times and Sweden and got rejected and was told that I was too old or that clubs couldn’t pay me or sign me. Not until I came back home and enrolled in community college did I say to myself — and I was on the verge of quitting completely when nothing was happening. So for about a year or so, maybe just over a year, I wasn’t really playing outdoor besides Sunday league. I was playing indoor, I was playing pickup, I was playing with my friends, I was working out, and I was going to school. Reality kicks in eventually and having tough conversations with your parents about what you need to look for in the next step, maybe start looking for a job because it’s time to pull your own weight. I was living at home at the time, and obviously my parents are more than happy to have me staying with them, but they didn’t want me to just get complacent and lazy and continue to have this dream that might not turn into reality again. There was a time and point when I was 21 and 22 where I was like, “you know what? If this is the end of the road for me, it’s painful, it’s tough, I’m going to hate myself for it, but if this is what it is, then I gave it my best shot. A lot of things were out of my control and I couldn’t really do much about them.” Luck also plays in your favor a lot. All these things combined almost led me to quitting and if it wasn’t for my dad and also my mom, giving me that one last push and having me go to this open tryout, I don’t think that my career would have restarted and properly taken off with Sacramento and gotten me to where I am now.”

NorCal: What advice would you have for a young player in a similar situation that you were in to start your career?

Klimenta: Don’t give up. I know it’s as cheesy, and as corny, and as cliche as can be. But honestly, it’s one of those things where…I’ll give you this perspective: I don’t know much about baseball, I didn’t know how it all worked with getting drafted. Only two years ago did I realize that there was A, AA, AAA, there’s independent baseball, there are like seven different leagues under the majors in baseball, with thousands of kids playing it and hundreds of thousands not even making it to that level but trying to. In soccer it’s similar, but not as tough. Now it’s a lot easier than it was back when I started playing, there was MLS and the USL. You had the NASL, but nobody really knew much about that, there were something like six teams in that league. As cliche as it sounds, just don’t give up. If you’re a young kid and you’re 17-years-old and your dream is to become a professional and if you think that at 17 you need to be a professional, well not in the States. Kids come out of college at age 21, 22 and have good MLS careers. They play in MLS for eight, nine, 10 years and do well for themselves. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Now, if your aspirations are to go to Europe and play, well then 17, 18, 19, 20, I feel like 21 is almost the cutoff at this time and place because look at some of the good soccer players nowadays. You’ve got 18-year-olds, you’ve got Gio Reyna who’s at Dortmund. He’s 17 and he’s tearing it up in the Bundesliga. It’s don’t give up, keep working hard, but at the same time, have a plan. If it backfires, have a plan of where you’re going to go next or what you’re going to do next because I’ve seen so many kids, so many guys who chase it for so long and dream about it for so long that they have nothing else going for them. Once reality hits and it doesn’t happen, they don’t know what to do. Continue to dream, continue to work hard, believe, don’t give up until the last, last, last, last, last, last breath if you will. That’s where I was, I was being real with myself when I was 21, 22, saying, “what if this is the end of the road for me?” I gave it my best, I did all I could, and if this was what was meant to be, this is what was meant to be.

NorCal: You just played in probably the strangest professional sports season you’ve had given that you played two games, then took three months off because of COVID-19, then resumed league play. How did you manage this situation and what did you do during the time off to make sure that you didn’t miss a beat when you came back?

Klimenta: For me, the quarantine, the two-and-a-half, three months off, however long it was, was actually a blessing. I say that because I started off preseason here in San Diego really well but I had a freak injury, something to do with my cartilage getting stuck in the side of my knee, and so I was out for about two-and-a-half, three weeks, right before the season was going to start. I had started off preseason on fire. I was as hungry as ever, ready to get going with a new team, I was the second signing in the history of San Diego Loyal so I had something to prove, not just to everybody else, but to myself. You know, being signed second overall and by Landon (Donovan) and being given the respect that he had given me from the get go really meant a lot so I came into preseason fit, sharp, ready to go, trained well and everything, but then had this freak injury and was out for three weeks. When I came back, the starting XI was pretty much formed because guys had been playing together for those three weeks so they had something good cooking and brewing so I was kind of left out. I was on the bench. First game of the year, one of our centerbacks gets injured and I have to go in and play a half. I played well and we ended up tying that game. The second game, I play well again and we won and I’m kind of finding my feet. Then the whole COVID-19 quarantine hit and it was weird. It was new to all of us, something that we’d never experienced before. It was like, “What do we do? What do I need to do to continue training and playing well like I have started to before everything shut down?” The one thing I have to say is mentality, how mentally strong are you? And back to what I was saying earlier, how bad do you want it? In every team, and I’m not ashamed to say this, there’s guys on the team that for the first month did nothing. Did nothing at all. Because nobody knew when the return date was or if there was going to be a return date, so there were a couple of guys who did nothing. To me that just shows that you don’t really care as much, you think that everything will be fine…to me it was like, “I need to get back to where I was in the preseason, I need to get back to being as strong and as fit as possible.” I have some weights, I have some bands, and every single day I did stuff myself. I went on runs, I have a ball, I kicked it about here in the parking lot, I just did little things that I felt would go a long way in the long run after this whole COVID thing. Luckily our athletic trainers actually own their own gym here in San Diego so they were able to have three of us at the same time go and work out. It was six feet of distance, they have their own racks, and it was a pretty big place. I went in every single day, me and a couple of the other guys went in every single day lifted, ran, and did these insane workouts and when we went back to training, I can say this with confidence, “me and the two ther guys who trained every single day, we were the fittest, sharpest guys out there.” We were blowing past everyone else in every single drill. We weren’t feeling groggy or tired, it was like we didn’t miss a beat. We also did some Zoom workouts with the team but those were kind of just to see familiar faces and joke around a little bit. Because you can only do so many pushups, so many sit ups, so many jumping jacks, burpees, and high knees on your own. At the end of the day, mentality and how bad you want it (are key). This whole pandemic is something that you can’t control so it’s on you to control what you can do. You’re very capable of getting up and going on a run, doing some simple stuff at home, simple drills at home to keep yourself going, even if it’s just a 30 minute run. You can’t get complacent, you can’t get lazy and think you’re going to be fine when everything resumes. I saw a lot of guys go from starting and being in the coach’s favor to not starting and being the outcast because they didn’t come back fit. It just shows that you’re as strong mentally and you’re not as strong professionally as you need to be because at the end of the day, you are a professional athlete.

NorCal: You mentioned Landon Donovan. What was that experience like, playing for probably the best male soccer player this country has ever produced, at least one who has played his entire career already?

Klimenta: It was good. I agree, maybe when it’s all said and done in 10 or 15 years we can look at Gio Reyna or Pulisic or someone like that and say that they’ve overtaken him, but at this moment in time, I don’t think there’s any US Soccer player who has had a better career than he has. Just talking to him over the phone, I was getting nervous because he’s a big name. And I’ve played with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gio dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini, I’ve played against Lewandowski, I’ve played with Stefan Savic and Steven Jovetic on the national team, all of those guys, but for some reason it’s different being on the pitch with them and getting to know them as teammates than it is be coached by an older figure who you’ve looked up to and known about for a while because of his career. Just talking to him, I was nervous going into it, but five minutes into our conversation I literally said to myself, “this is the most down to Earth, chill dude ever.” If he didn’t have his career and I was talking to “Landon Donovan, regular dude,” you would think that this was the nicest, most laid-back, calm dude you’ve ever met in your life. He’s just so soft-spoken, kind, a good listener, just attentive, super cool guy. And then he becomes my coach and he’s completely different on the field. Some say he was like that in his career — off the field he was this nice, cool guy, but on the field he was just brutal, he just wanted to win, he just wanted to be better, he just wanted to get better. As a coach, those traits came through. Obviously it’s his first coaching gig, so our assistant, Nate Miller, took the reigns for coaching the system we played, doing drills, the style we wanted to play, how we wanted to play, all these different things were all done by our assistant coaches, who were great at it as well, but Landon was there learning as well as obviously being the head coach and having the final say on certain things. The amount of help that he’s given the attacking and midfield players — he’s helped defenders as well. There was a picture I put on Instagram where he’s showing forwards how to post up and how to position their bodies and how to move, and he used me as an example. Throughout training sessions, he would stop play and say, “I think this is what you should do,” or “I’ve been around guys like Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, who would do this or say this or this is what I learned from this coach or this player.” So he would use his experience in a completely different way and help out our forwards and midfielders, and our defenders as well, but just having him there watching you like an eagle, then listening to everything you had to say, he was vocal and a huge factor to our success later in the season when we started firing on all cylinders and scoring goals. He stayed after every training session with the attackers. He also took the responsibility whenever we would tie or lose a game. He would say, “as a player losing a game or tying a game that we should have won ate me up and I hated it. But as a coach it kills me even more because I know the hard work you guys put in and the hard work the coaching staff puts in. To see you guys at the end of the game with your heads down, upset, it kills me even more. I didn’t expect that as a coach, but it’s something that as a player drove me to be a better player. Now as a coach, it drives me to help you guys become better players and get wins.” It was definitely intimidating because you couldn’t just show up and slack off because Landon is watching. It also gave you that much more of a push and incentive to train well and play well because you have one good season in soccer, you never know what can happen with your career. And with his connections, you play well, he likes you, he can easily make a phone call and help you out with an MLS team or something along those lines. Having him as a coach was definitely something special that I’m happy I was able to experience. He helped me quite a lot on the field and as a person as well. He’s left an impression and a mark on me as a player immensely. He had a good career on the field, but how good of a person he was was even better.