- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

Forget Manchester United. Forget Real Madrid. In 1991, Red Star Belgrade dominated world soccer. The Yugoslavian club won European and world championships that year, and D.C. United defender Dejan Jakovic, then a 5-year-old living in Croatia, dreamed of one day wearing a Red Star jersey.

Last year that dream became reality, but it was short-lived.

“It was a great experience for me but unfortunately it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to,” Jakovic said. “It was a dream come true playing for them, but I had to move on.”

He made five starts for Red Star, including two UEFA Cup games, but after a coaching change, Jakovic’s days were numbered. When the international transfer window opened in January, United contacted the 6-foot-2 central defender and signed him late in February.

Jakovic played as right-side defender in United’s 2-2 season-opener at the Los Angeles Galaxy.

“I was a little shaky at first, but then I settled down,” the 23-year-old said. “I thought we played well and deserved more than the tie.”

According to United general manager Dave Kasper, United had monitored Jakovic for over a year while he was at UAB, and when he played for Canada’s U-23 team in Olympic qualifying in March 2008.

Jakovic decided to forgo his senior year at college to sign with Red Star. When the coach who signed him was fired, Red Star looked to offload him, and that’s when United stepped in.

“His contract with Red Star was going to expire in July, and he was going to walk away as a free agent, so they got some compensation when we paid a very small symbolic transfer fee,” Kasper said. “He has all the tools. He has good size, good feet and a bright future.”

In United’s 1-1 tie with visiting Chicago last week, Jakovic replaced the injured Greg Janicki in the center of the three-man defense. United coach Tom Soehn praised him for keeping a close eye on Chicago striker Brian McBride.

“For someone who joined us this late, he has adjusted very well,” Soehn said.

Last year, United spent big money on South American defenders Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez, but the experiment failed and United ended the season with the second-worst defense.

Soehn, a former defender who builds his team from the back, is expecting a much from Jakovic, whose $90,000 base salary makes him one of United’s highest-paid defenders this season.

Jakovic’s father played professionally for Croatian club Karlovac.

“My dad took me to every game,” Jakovic said.

When he was seven his family fled war-torn Yugoslavia and moved to Toronto. He became a Canadian citizen. Last year he made his debut for Canada’s senior team.

Jakovic said he gets inspiration watching Brazilian attacking-midfielder Kaka.

“Even though I’m a defender, I really look up to Kaka from AC Milan,” Jakovic said. “He’s brilliant. AC Milan has always been my team.”

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