Once discarded by MLS, Ante Razov is a red-hot scorer for the Fire
In early 1998, Ante Razov, a former star forward at UCLA, just about gave up on soccer. No one wanted him—none of the first-or second-division clubs he had tried out for in Germany and the Netherlands, not a single MLS team. When Razov's agent had called the MLS office in '97 to recommend his client for the February 1998 supplemental draft, league bigwigs refused. Who wanted an inexperienced player who had been cut twice by the Los Angeles Galaxy? "I almost went back to school," says Razov. "I was just waiting, hoping something would happen."
A little over a year later Razov, 25, is a starter for the defending champion Chicago Fire and the runaway leader in the MLS scoring race, with six goals and three assists in four games. He's further proof that MLS (its occasional misjudgment of talent notwithstanding) can be a developmental launchpad for talented young Americans. Only three weeks into the 1999 season Razov became the first player in league history to have three straight multigoal games, and he's quickly turning into the anti-Kevin Garnett, a budding star who this season will earn-no joke—$25,200.
Razov's fortunes, however, have improved vastly from a year ago, when they could be summed up by the oxymoron unemployed striker. His odyssey began in March 1996, when he was invited for a tryout by Croatian club Dynamo Zagreb. Croatia is a special place to Razov, who was born in Whittier, Calif., to Croatian immigrants and often spent his vacations in their homeland visiting extended family. He returned, however, to a country ravaged by war. The previous year the Yugoslav army had killed 18 of Razov's relatives, including an uncle and his maternal grandparents. "As soon as he arrived there was this sadness," says his father, Mile. "He couldn't bear it." Eight days later Ante flew back to California.
Although Razov has had supporters—former U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic saw enough potential to play him against Uruguay in 1995—he never earned the faith of Galaxy coaches, who used him in only 11 games during the 1996 and '97 MLS seasons. After he failed to catch on in Europe, Razov's career appeared to be over, at least until Fire coach Bob Bradley took a chance and brought him into last year's spring camp as a non-roster invitee.
Razov scored twice in his first scrimmage, earned a starting spot by May and went on to lead the expansion Fire with 10 goals. Thanks to his surgically accurate left foot and penchant for positioning himself to score opportunistic goals, he got a recall to the national team last November as part of coach Bruce Arena's youth movement. "I knew Ante would be a great player if he was just given the chance," says Fire midfielder Chris Armas. "He's fast and strong, and he makes smart runs. Not all forwards understand the game well. Ante does."
Not that Razov is ready to stand beside Ronaldo and Michael Owen in the hierarchy of strikers. While noting that Razov has matured this season, curbing his tendency to drop too far back toward midfield when he should be attacking the goal, Bradley says Razov is still learning how to contribute without scoring. To that end Fire captain and veteran Polish midfielder Peter Nowak, 34, has taken on Razov as a student. "Ante has a great future, and sometimes he steps in heaven," Nowak says, "but then we need to bring him back to the ground."
If Nowak doesn't keep Razov grounded, then his paycheck surely will. Before this season MLS offered to double his salary if he agreed to extend his contract for two years, to 2002. Razov refused, figuring he could earn much more as a free agent after next season, either in MLS or abroad. That's probably true, but for now he's thinking twice about going to movies or buying the latest reggae CD or eating out "It's a week-to-week thing," he says, "and Chicago's an expensive city."
Before last Saturday's 1-0 loss to Dallas, Chicago's only defeat in its first four games, Razov bought an Acura Legend. Used, of course. The 1992 model is hardly extravagant, but it's a smart investment: efficient, with an understated style and surprising acceleration. In other words, it's a lot like its owner.
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