It has been several generations since the men’s Hungarian national team was a force on the world stage. Back in the early days on international competition, Hungary were one of the top teams, buoyed by two runner up finishes at World Cups, winning three Olympic gold medals, and finishing in third at the 1964 European Championships.
But until last summer’s European Championship, Hungary had not played at a major tournament for 30 years. So it was surprising when Hungary topped a group that included Portugal, fellow surprise package Iceland, and Austria. Hungary eventually bowed out in the Round of 16 to Belgium, but their return to the international stage was a welcome sight back home.
One of the six goals scored by Hungary during the tournament came from Zoltan Stieber. That name might not have rang any bells for D.C. United fans at the time, but Stieber was part of United’s haul during the summer transfer window. He had to wait longer than the other new faces to make his debut due to the timing of getting his visa, but his first start against the New England Revolution showcased what the Hungarian midfielder is capable of on the field.
“I’ve played two games. I’m very happy to play for D.C. United,” Stieber told B&RU this week. “The first game I played, we won, so that was a quite good start. The second game we lost against Orlando, but we had a couple of chances to score some goals.”
Against New England, Stieber immediately showed off his abilities in connecting with Luciano Acosta. The two combined on several occasions, which on another night could have resulted in several goals. Instead, the 1-0 win kept United’s slim playoff hopes alive, as they won for the third time in a row.
Last weekend, Stieber was handed a second consecutive start, despite having just traveled back from international duty. Stieber played 74 minutes in a 3-1 win over Latvia, but Hungary’s hopes for qualification were extinguished in a home loss to Portugal that saw Stieber unable to get minutes. Back with his new club team, the fortunes were similar, as United surely saw any last playoff hopes ended with a 2-1 loss at home to Orlando City.
Stieber went 67 minutes in the loss, and showed some more promise, despite having had limited training time with the team since the Revolution win. That said, head coach Ben Olsen admitted that he might have not have fully understood the toll that travel takes for European players coming back stateside. In fairness, it’s not something that United has dealt with much in their history.
“He had had a long week, and I might have underestimated all the travel he went through. But he played his way into that game,” Olsen told B&RU this week. “It was a good look for him into what MLS speed and power look like. He’s used to that in the international game and in Germany, but every league is a little bit different. That was a throw-down, playoff pace, desperate, physical game, that was good for him to be exposed to.”
And even if Stieber did not have quite the same performance that he did against the Revolution, Olsen still remains excited about what he saw from the winger, including his abilities to combine with his new teammates on the field.
“He’s brought quality. Technically, he’s extremely gifted,” added Olsen. “He’s created relationships with some of the other technical players on the squad.”
It’s been a tough season for United, who had hoped to spend their last year at RFK Stadium making the playoffs as they had done in the past three seasons. It’s clear at this point that won’t happen, but the major shakeup during the secondary transfer window has put the team on a better course for 2018, when they will spend most of the first half of the season away from home.
Bringing in Stieber, Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse, and Bruno Miranda is only part of the equation. General Manager Dave Kasper will still have work to do on the construction of the roster during the winter, as there are still several positions that United need to improve at. Yet, by making drastic changes this summer, even when the playoffs were out of reach, United have allowed the team a chance to integrate when the pressure is off, something they won’t be afforded next spring.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time,” Stieber said, of getting to know the tendencies of his teammates on the field. “But we know each other a little bit more every day. We had some combinations already offensively. I’m happy about that. I’m sure it’s going to be better in the next games.”
Stieber’s arrival in MLS adds to a slowing growing group of Hungarians in the league. Very few Hungarian players had ever played in the league before 2015, when Krisztian Nemeth joined up with Sporting Kansas City, and had a good year before transferring to Al-Gharafa in Qatar. Nemeth, an international teammate of Stieber, then rejoined this league this summer with the Revolution.
But this year has also seen the emergence of Nemanja Nikolic, who joined the Chicago Fire during the offseason. United head to Illinois to take on the Fire this weekend, giving the Hungarian teammates a chance to face off for the first time. Nikolic, before hitting a rough patch in the summer, was leading the scoring charts in MLS. Nikolic still sits second in the scoring charts, tied with Diego Valeri, having scored 17 times this year.
Stieber, who mentioned the success of Nikolic and Nemeth in MLS in his introductory press conference as a reason for joining United, is looking forward to catching up with Nikolic, and then taking all three points from the game.
“We are going to talk. I’ll be happy to see him. I’m happy to see him doing so well this season,” Stieber said of Nikolic. “It’s going to be a great day, but hopefully we can take the three points from them.”