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March 01, 2017

Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin is aware of both his qualities and shortcomings

At his Wednesday press conference, Union head coach Jim Curtin described Haris Medunjanin as the best passer on his team.

That's high praise for a player who has only been in the country for 18 days.

Already, the 31-year-old Bosnian is probably the most important player on the team in terms of how he fits the system and how he influences the other ten guys on the field.

You watched him debut as a deep-lying midfielder in the preseason games against Tampa Bay, Montreal, and D.C. United. Medunjanin plays the game like a ball-moving number eight, but he operates from the same space as a number six, which creates an interesting tactical puzzle for Curtin to solve.

How do you build around an elite passer who is also a defensive liability?

Medunjanin is aware of the issue.

"It's important for me," Medunjanin told PhillyVoice. "People always say, 'you're not a defender.' Okay, I agree with that. I'm not a defender. I'm not like a Claude Makalele or N'Golo Kante, who can (win) the ball like that. But if we stay compact, then you don't have to be a defender. If we stay compact and stay within, say ten yards of each other, then it's hard for teams to pass by you there. But when the game begins to become (wide open), it's very difficult for me, which is why I need one guy who can play there, you know?"

There are a few candidates for that job.

Captain Alejandro Bedoya has been paired with Medunjanin in the preseason. Derrick Jones has also played as the number eight and Warren Creavalle and Maurice Edu can do the job when healthy.

Curtin will go with either Bedoya or Jones for Sunday's season opener.

"It's much easier for me to have a guy alongside me where we can always be talking," added Medunjanin. "It's much easier than playing there alone. I know my qualities and I need to have the ball at my feet. Sometimes in the game, you don't have the ball, so you need to take it away. That's why it's important to speak with everybody, attack with everybody, and defend with everybody. That's the main point."

One positive is that Medunjanin is familiar with the Union's shape and system. He's played a lot of 4-2-3-1 during his 15-year career and he's served up assists to the likes of Edin Dzeko, Graziano Pelle, Cenk Tosun, and Eran Zahavi.

"The national team with Bosnia we played 4-2-3-1, and always when I was in Spain we played 4-2-3-1," he explained. "I know the system. It's perfect for me and it's good to be able to learn from this coach. He's very professional and speaks well. He knows what he's talking about and I think we need to listen to him."

An affinity for America

On his introductory conference call, Medunjanin spoke of a fondess for American sports and culture. The Union connection was made by Sporting Director Earnie Stewart, who knew the midfielder as a former AZ Alkmaar player and Dutch youth international.

"I always said to myself that it would be really great to play, at some point in my career, in the United States, and that dream came true," Medunjanin said. "It was a plus point also that Earnie Stewart is here. I talked with him and he gave me a good feeling about coming here. He called me and asked me what I thought about (coming to) the Philadelphia Union. I said, 'yeah, I'm positive.' I also said to my (previous) manager, if there's something (available) in the United States, that I'm going to think about it."

Medunjanin made the decision to sign with the Union before even coming to Philadelphia. He only arrived on February 13th, toured the facilities for the first time, and received a physical before flying to Florida with his teammates for the third and final phase of preseason.

"I was positive about everything when I came here," he said. "The things we have here at this club, I don't think a lot of teams in Europe have that. I think we can prepare ourselves at the max for the first game, and for the season. Preseason games are always good and they're a learning point. You get to know each other. It's been maybe two weeks for me, so it's early, but I'm very happy to be here and I think there's some good potential in this team."

Medunjanin says that he often spoke with his Bosnian teammates about playing club soccer in the United States.

Two of those teammates, Vedad Ibisevic and Asmir Begovic, spent part of their youth in North America after their families left Bosnia during the ethnic wars that took place some two decades ago. The Sarajevo-born Medunjanin moved to the Netherlands with his family, while Ibisevic and Begovic ended up in Saint Louis and Edmonton.

"I'm very good friends with those two guys," Medunjanin said. "We always had group chats about the United States, and everything was always positive. Ibisevic also told me about the assistant coach, Mike (Sorber), who he knew from Saint Louis. I would always try to watch American sports. I'm a fan of baseball, basketball, and American football and I always enjoyed the time that I spent here with the national team."

Medunjanin has already been to his first Philadelphia sporting event.

"A couple of days ago we went to watch the Sixers and Warriors, which was nice for me to see," he said. "When I was in Europe, I would have to wake up at three in the morning to watch those games (laughs). Hopefully, when the football season starts I can watch those games as well. I would also watch the Super Bowl in Holland and other big games, like the NFL playoffs, and the NBA playoffs and the finals. I would watch all of those games."