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June 01, 2017

Union's Medunjanin says national team managers need to 'come and watch the games' before judging MLS

Soccer Union
060117_haris gajdam Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page

Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin has appeared for Bosnia more than 50 times in an eight-year international career.

Haris Medunjanin was never concerned about losing his spot in the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team.

On Sunday, he'll fly home to join his teammates for a critical World Cup qualifier against Greece.

Those teammates play for Juventus, Roma, Everton, and Hertha Berlin. That's elite company for a Philadelphia Union player, but Bosnia manager Mehmed Baždarević is showing no discrimination when choosing his roster.

"I told him, 'listen, it's a nice adventure for me, I've always wanted to play in the United States, and if you want me in the national team you can call me,'" said Medunjanin of his international status. "If not, no problem, I will not be angry. I will just play my game here, and if they want me, they want me. That's how it is."

And that's how things have worked out, despite a move to the United States and a league that does not play through the typical FIFA calendar.

Medunjanin did not play for Bosnia during the March international window, asking Baždarević instead if he could stay with his new club as the Union began the 2017 season.

That didn't seem to hurt his chances with the national team, nor did his MLS move.

But it's not the case for everyone, with Sebastian Giovinco famously omitted from Italy's roster on multiple occasions in recent years.

Manager Giampiero Ventura criticized Giovinco's decision to sign with Toronto, admitting that he didn't think much of MLS.

Medunjanin disputes that idea, referencing the play of another European star.

"I don't think (it's fair)," Medunjanin said of the Giovinco snub. "I think MLS is a great league, a strong league with a lot of international players. (Laurent) Ciman is playing for Belgium. Belgium is like the second or third (ranked) team in the world. He's been playing with the first eleven and he's doing great. It doesn't matter. If you have quality, it doesn't matter where you play.

"Of course, people will say, 'if you play in Spain or Italy or England then you're surrounded by better players.' But I would say to anybody who comes to MLS that it doesn't matter who you are, it's going to be difficult. It doesn't matter if you're a superstar or not. People know how to play here. They need to come and watch the games and then go from there, to see if you're ready for the national team or not."

Bosnia is currently third place in their qualifying group, one point behind Greece and three back from Belgium.

Medunjanin recalls an encounter with Ciman during an October qualifier in Brussels, a 4-0 win for the Red Devils.

"When we played away against Belgium, we were a little bit better in the first 20 minutes. Then one guy got injured, Ciman came in, he changed the game for them and they ended up winning. It doesn't matter, you know? Ciman is a very good player and he's playing next to other players who are very good, so he can prove his quality even more. Of course, he's not playing next to (Jan) Vertonghen in Montreal, but he does have good players next to him. If you play next to Vertonghen or Messi, you're going to be better, of course. That's normal. But you can't say, because you play in MLS or Israel, that you don't deserve a chance at the national team."

Israel was Medunjanin's last stop on a career path that's also taken him to the Netherlands, Spain, and Turkey.

Say what you will about the competition at Maccabi Tel Aviv, but Medunjanin never lost his national team place by moving to a "lesser" league, not even when he rejoined Maccabi at age 31.

"When I played in Israel, there were always members of the first eleven who were playing for the national team," Medunjanin explained. "I don't think Israel is a better league than MLS. In Israel, you probably have one, two, three teams that have a lot of money and can pay you, but I don't think the other teams there are better than MLS teams. I don't think like that. I always say that it doesn't matter where you play. If you have quality you can play anywhere you want. If a national team or a coach doubts you, then they need to come here and watch it. If they want to say that the level is too low or that there is not enough quality, then they can say it. But to say that without even (watching) or to say that you don't deserve a chance because you play in MLS is a little bit different."

Take a look around MLS and you'll see that the number of international call-ups is increasing at a significant pace.

It's not just CONCACAF calls, either. Ambroise Oyongo played 90 minutes in the African Cup of Nations final. Miguel Almiron is a starter for Paraguay. Antonio Delamea, Alex Ring, and Albert Rusnak are in the mix for European calls.

Union head coach Jim Curtin says the perception is changing, but that it's going to take time.

"I think there is still a part of the world that maybe looks down on MLS," said Curtin. "But as quality players like Haris, like Ciman, like Giovinco come here in their prime or [for] big parts of their career, then they go back and speak about what the league is like. When Tranquillo Barnetta goes back and talks about the league, these guys have a lot of equity in what they've done during their careers. People listen when they speak.

"There are still going to be doubters and that part will take time. I think that's been accelerated now with how quickly younger players are coming here. You think of Atlanta and what they've done – Almiron coming over in the prime of his career for big money. They also look at the salaries and see that those are going up. All of these things will accelerate how people perceive the league."

Curtin's mention of Barnetta is appropriate, considering the fact that the Swiss midfielder was sold on Philadelphia by goalkeeper Oka Nikolov, a Frankfurt teammate who played for the Union three years prior.

"Are there still going to be naysayers and the Eurosnobs that don't respect it? Yea, that's part of it," Curtin added. "I'll talk about David Villa, a guy we'll run into this weekend who does nothing but endorse the league publically. He's probably the best player, ever, to play in the league. I look at him as a guy who plays every minute, whenever the coach needs him. He's never injured. He's a true professional and he speaks highly of the league."