If you’re a solid regular on a European national team, it can be a difficult proposition to move to MLS. There’s a perception issue involved, not to mention the “whole new world” aspect of moving to a league that is unique in a lot of ways. So what prompted Zoltan Stieber, relatively comfortable with life at 1. FC Kaiserslautern, to decide to move to D.C. United?
Relative to the youth movement for United during this transfer window, Stieber comes in as the grizzled veteran, at the prime age of 28 years old. He spent most of his career bouncing between the top two divisions in Germany, while earning 21 caps with Hungary, including a goal at last year’s Euro 2016 tournament.
But when D.C. came calling, the allure of the opportunity he was presented with was too good to pass up.
“A few weeks ago I got a call that D.C. United was interested in me,” Stieber said during an introductory press conference on Thursday. “I was thinking about having a move to do something different, and I think this was the right decision, and I’m happy to be here.”
Among the fans greeting Stieber and the other new signings at Thursday’s open practice were some folks from the Hungarian Embassy. Excited to see a fellow countryman turn out for the local club, the pair brought a Hungarian flag and scarf to show support for Stieber.
It’s perhaps the start of a trend of MLS clubs looking for Hungarians. Stieber cited the success of Hungary teammates Nemanja Nikolic, currently the second leading scorer in the league with the Chicago Fire, and Krisztian Nemeth, who returned to the league with the New England Revolution in his own transfer deadline day deal, as a big reason why he considered coming to MLS in the first place.
“I was looking at MLS because of two teammates with the national team. Krisztian Nemeth, who used to play for Kansas City, and Nemanja Nikolic, who plays for Chicago,” said Stieber. “Both guys did really well, and I was following their career. I know the league is developing and getting better.”
Stieber will become the sixth ever Hungarian to play in MLS once he does take the field for the Black-and-Red. Istvan Urbanyi paved the way, when he appeared in 23 games for the San Jose Clash during the 1997 season. Zoltan Hercegfalvi didn’t have much impact with the old Kansas City Wizards back in 2009.
But Nemeth had a good season for Sporting Kansas City back in 2015. He left after that season for a big-money contract in Qatar, but the Revs made a move on Wednesday night to bring him back to the league. In addition, Nikolic has taken the league by storm this year, after joining the Fire from Legia Warsaw in Poland.
His 16 goals are second only to New York City FC’s David Villa, who has 17. Nikolic has benefited from excellence behind him in David Accam, Dax McCarty, and Bastian Schweinsteiger. But he’s also made the most of his opportunities.
Stieber was asked during the press conference is there was something about Hungarian players that has helped them ease into MLS, a league that for some players, is difficult to adapt to.
“We have some quality players in Hungary,” Stieber said in response to the question. “It speaks of their abilities and strengths.”
There’s a decent chance that this weekend, Stieber’s fellow new arrivals, Paul Arriola and Russell Canouse, will make their team debuts against Real Salt Lake. But both of those players are American, which means United didn’t need a work visa for them to be able to play, just the receipt of their international transfer certificates.
For Stieber, a visa may take a bit too long to let him suit up tomorrow. That would keep Stieber out of the team this weekend, but potentially available for next weekend’s trip to play the Colorado Rapids. Missing this week though will give Stieber a chance to improve his fitness. Like other signings from Europe, Stieber is coming in somewhere in the midst of preseason.
“It’s not easy to come in the middle of the season. I’m not 100% fit at the moment, but I’m working on it,” Stieber said at the press conference. “I’m sure I will be able to help the team, and that is my target. As soon as possible, I get my papers done, and hopefully that will be next week, so hopefully that will be my first game. It’s not only about the next few months.”