Goalkeeper Milos Kocic leaves Toronto FC with a tangle of conflicting emotions.
The 27-year-old Serbian fondly remembers winning the starting job with the MLS team, helping it capture the Amway Canadian Championship and reach the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Kocic savours the memory of sitting next to captain Torsten Frings in the locker-room, hearing the German star’s stories from the World Cup and other soccer showcases.
He met wife Evelyn in Toronto and watched his family grow there with the birth of triplets in the fall.
But Kocic also heads west to the Portland Timbers this week with negative memories after a nightmarish 2012 season that saw Toronto stagger to a franchise-worst 5-21-8 record. He recalls a locker-room where some players shrugged off defeats.
“A lot of times this year the players were just like laughing after the game. You lose the games and they don’t care,” he said bitterly.
And he remembers Toronto as a franchise with a double standard for its players, treating some like favoured sons while others went without praise.
Most damning, he leaves thinking of Toronto FC as an organization that does not reward effort or accomplishment with playing time.
“It’s better for me to leave, to go somewhere where else I’m going to be appreciated,” Kocic said.
Toronto, under new management in the guise of president and GM Kevin Payne, obliged Kocic by trading him to Portland along with forward Ryan Johnson in mid-December for backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik and the third overall pick in Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft. Like Kocic, Johnson’s patience in Toronto had worn out.
Kocic’s view of Toronto FC is admittedly a snapshot of the past. Payne, who drafted and released him at D.C. United, is tearing up the team in a bid to shed the franchise’s losing culture.
Payne has fired manager Paul Mariner and is remaking the roster for new head coach Ryan Nelsen. Kocic is one of 10 players to leave since the end of last season.
Toronto has likely done both Kocic and Johnson a favour by dispatching them to Portland.
Johnson played for Oregon State and Kocic should get a fair chance under new coach Caleb Porter to unseat 35-year-old starter Donovan Ricketts, who earned a hefty US$275,000 last season, which he split between Montreal and Portland. Kocic earned a bargain-basement $44,100 in comparison.
Young New Zealand ‘keeper Jake Gleason is also in the Timbers mix.
“In my opinion it will be Ricketts’ job to lose,” Bendik said of the goalie sweepstakes in Portland. “He’s got the big salary but he’s a good goalkeeper.”
Like Toronto, Portland can only get better. Last season, the 8-16-10 Timbers conceded 56 goals. Only Toronto (62) and Chivas (58) were worse defensively.
Still for Kocic, the move represents a new beginning after four MLS seasons and 41 games.
Kocic grew up in Leskovac, a town of some 70,000 in southern Serbia that has seen better days with jobs and people moving elsewhere.
“Everybody knows everybody, pretty much. It’s a great place to grow up and have a nice childhood,” said Kocic.
His father is a businessman, who has run everything from restaurants to a butcher’s shop and fish market. His mother manages some of those shops, and ran some boutiques of her own.
While his parents are now separated – his father lives in Belgrade while his mother stayed in Leskovac – they remain friends.
“My parents were hard-working people,” said Kocic. “That’s how we grew up. My father was a businessman. If something doesn’t work out, he moves to something else.”
Like father, like son, in that regard.
Kocic was 14 when NATO bombed Serbia. When the sirens roared, he would retreat to the basement with his family.
He downplays the dangers but has never forgotten the experience. Mark Mettrick, Kocic’s coach at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, recalls how Kocic spoke of the bombing during a team retreat.
“I think he was good for our team that he brought a different perspective on things rather than just the CNN one,” said Mettrick.