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Over his injuries, D.C. United’s Dejan Jakovic links the past, present
In his fourth year, Dejan Jakovic has been around the block in a D.C. United uniform. More so, in fact, than all but one of his teammates. While the club has overhauled its roster, the 27-year-old lingers as a rare remnant from another era.
So what has led to Jakovic's staying power in such a fluid situation? As the thought took hold, a grin spread over coach Ben Olsen's face.
"He's grown up a lot," Olsen said, "but there's so much more that he can do — which is scary."
In recent matches, United have seen what the product can look like when a fit, healthy Jakovic stays on the field. As D.C. has won three straight, including 1-0 triumphs over the Philadelphia Union and Chivas USA, Jakovic has partnered in central defense with Brandon McDonald to lead a suddenly stingy back line.
With captain Dwayne De Rosario sidelined by a sprained knee ligament, the gritty wins offer optimism that a 15-10-5 United side — tied for third in the East — will grab one of the conference's five playoff bids and make some noise come November.
"I don't know what it is — it's like everyone is stepping up a notch," Jakovic said. "We're hungry, and everyone's realizing we're right there."
There is no denying Jakovic has the tools to be one of the top center backs in MLS. An attacking midfielder and forward in his college days at UAB, he possesses elegance on the ball and pace that belie his lanky 6-foot-2 frame.
When United find themselves feeling the heat defensively, Jakovic has a knack for picking out his midfielders with clean distribution to help his team relieve the pressure with a spell of possession.
"He's extremely athletic, he's fast, he's comfortable on the ball, he's good in the air," Olsen said. "He's pretty well-rounded for a center back."
But injuries, and the lack of sharpness that correspond with them, have plagued Jakovic. In his first three MLS seasons, he started just 56 of United's 94 league games. After he dealt with hamstring ailments last season, it was an ankle injury that sidelined him for seven games this past spring.
Since mid-May, however, he has missed just one contest because of injury. After Argentine veteran Emiliano Dudar got the nod over him for a 3-0 loss at the Montreal Impact on Aug. 25, Jakovic has started five straight games.
He figures to again be in the lineup Saturday when United travel to face the Portland Timbers (7-15-8). Considering Jakovic's roommate, Chris Pontius, is the only player who has been with the club longer than him, the soft-spoken defender feels a degree of responsibility as United seek to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
"It's crazy that me and Chris are the two players that have been here the longest," Jakovic said. "I definitely feel at home. This is my team, mine and Chris'. We're just moving forward, and both of us have a goal to make these playoffs and go even further. We have a great opportunity right now, and there's no way we're going to let that slip."
Added McDonald: "Decky is not the most vocal player, but I think he leads by example with his play. So for him, he's going out there, he's winning balls, he's putting pressure on guys."
This fall also is a crucial time for Jakovic on the international front as the Canada national team attempts to advance in World Cup qualifying and eventually make the tournament's final cut for the first time since 1986, its only appearance.
Jakovic, who as a child moved with his family to Toronto amid ethnic warfare in what is now Croatia, has been called up for Canada's past four World Cup qualifiers but hasn't seen the field.
When the Canadians wrap the semifinal stage with games Oct. 12 against Cuba and Oct. 16 at Honduras, though, his form on the club level may force national team coach Stephen Hart to reconsider.
"It's the same to me, whether it's with Canada or it's with D.C.," said Jakovic, who Thursday was named to Canada's upcoming roster. "I'm just focused, I feel great, and I'm playing with confidence."
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