Signed just after the season began, Montenegrin left back Nemanja Vukovic has filled a void at the position that had been the Crew's biggest question mark coming into 2012. Vukovic has adjusted well to Major League Soccer while providing the Black & Gold with solid defense and service in the attack.
"I think it's been a good adjustment," Crew technical director Brian Bliss said. "I think he's fit in well, he's done well."
To gain his fitness, Vukovic played in a few Reserve League matches for the Black & Gold to learn the physical style of MLS and his new team.
"Through reserve team games and practices, I was able to understand the basic principle of the way Robert (Warzycha) wanted me to play and made sure I was in-sync with the players in front of me," Vukovic explained through a translator. "Coming from Europe, people don't realize how good and quality of a league MLS is. I didn't have really high expectations in terms of quality of play, but I learned pretty quickly that the level of play is at a much higher level than a lot of European players think."
Bliss agreed that Vukovic and other foreign players that come into the league are a bit surprised at first.
"You look at other foreign players come into the league, they say the same thing," Bliss said. "The physicality, the speed, the actual quality of the players is better than they thought. Then, throw in the travel, and it's a demanding league. I think we're getting some respect for that from some of the bigger name foreign players that have come in and all said the same thing."
Before coming to Columbus, Vukovic spent time in playing in his home country's first division and in Greece. Bliss and Crew head coach Robert Warzycha discovered Vukovic through a chance encounter with his agent during preseason camp in Florida. Bliss then invited him to trial with the Crew in Charleston, SC and the rest is history.
"We saw it from the first day that he came in during preseason in Charleston that he had some ability," Bliss reflected. "He's got the offensive weaponry, in terms of attacking and passing. He's certainly been a good addition and has added stuff on both sides of the ball for us to help solidify that."
Vukovic credits Portland's Kris Boyd, Dallas' Brek Shea, and Seattle's Fredy Montero as the toughest players he's had to face so far in MLS, none of whom scored against the Crew this season. In fact, the Black & Gold has allowed just four goals in Vukovic's 574 minutes this season.
"Like everybody, when you're under pressure in the back line, mistakes are going to happen," Bliss said. "Guys are going to make mistakes. It's how well you recover from the mistakes. I think he's done fine. He's got a good head on his shoulders and he bounces back quickly from mistakes. Otherwise, I think he's been very solid."
Though he's performed admirably thus far this season, the Montenegrin feels the best is yet to come.
"Up to this point, I've done well, but there is room for improvement," Vukovic stated. "I can improve to play even better."