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Goalkeeper Milos Kocic speaks out on a season behind the worst team in MLS

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TORONTO - Goalkeeper Milos Kocic leaves Toronto FC with a tangle of conflicting emotions.

The 27-year-old Serbian fondly remembers winning the starting job with the MLS team, helping it capture the Amway Canadian Championship and reach the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Kocic savours the memory of sitting next to captain Torsten Frings in the locker-room, hearing the German star's stories from the World Cup and other soccer showcases.

He met wife Evelyn in Toronto and watched his family grow there with the birth of triplets in the fall.

But Kocic also heads west to the Portland Timbers this week with negative memories after a nightmarish 2012 season that saw Toronto stagger to a franchise-worst 5-21-8 record. He recalls a locker-room where some players shrugged off defeats.

"A lot of times this year the players were just like laughing after the game. You lose the games and they don't care," he said bitterly.

And he remembers Toronto as a franchise with a double standard for its players, treating some like favoured sons while others went without praise.

Most damning, he leaves thinking of Toronto FC as an organization that does not reward effort or accomplishment with playing time.

"It's better for me to leave, to go somewhere where else I'm going to be appreciated," Kocic said.

Toronto, under new management in the guise of president and GM Kevin Payne, obliged Kocic by trading him to Portland along with forward Ryan Johnson in mid-December for backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik and the third overall pick in Thursday's MLS SuperDraft. Like Kocic, Johnson's patience in Toronto had worn out.

Kocic's view of Toronto FC is admittedly a snapshot of the past. Payne, who drafted and released him at D.C. United, is tearing up the team in a bid to shed the franchise's losing culture.

Payne has fired manager Paul Mariner and is remaking the roster for new head coach Ryan Nelsen. Kocic is one of 10 players to leave since the end of last season.

Toronto has likely done both Kocic and Johnson a favour by dispatching them to Portland.

Johnson played for Oregon State and Kocic should get a fair chance under new coach Caleb Porter to unseat 35-year-old starter Donovan Ricketts, who earned a hefty US$275,000 last season, which he split between Montreal and Portland. Kocic earned a bargain-basement $44,100 in comparison.

Young New Zealand 'keeper Jake Gleason is also in the Timbers mix.

"In my opinion it will be Ricketts' job to lose," Bendik said of the goalie sweepstakes in Portland. "He's got the big salary but he's a good goalkeeper."

Like Toronto, Portland can only get better. Last season, the 8-16-10 Timbers conceded 56 goals. Only Toronto (62) and Chivas (58) were worse defensively.

Still for Kocic, the move represents a new beginning after four MLS seasons and 41 games.

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Kocic grew up in Leskovac, a town of some 70,000 in southern Serbia that has seen better days with jobs and people moving elsewhere.

"Everybody knows everybody, pretty much. It's a great place to grow up and have a nice childhood," said Kocic.

His father is a businessman, who has run everything from restaurants to a butcher's shop and fish market. His mother manages some of those shops, and ran some boutiques of her own.

While his parents are now separated — his father lives in Belgrade while his mother stayed in Leskovac — they remain friends.

"My parents were hard-working people," said Kocic. "That's how we grew up. My father was a businessman. If something doesn't work out, he moves to something else."

Like father, like son, in that regard.

Kocic was 14 when NATO bombed Serbia. When the sirens roared, he would retreat to the basement with his family.

He downplays the dangers but has never forgotten the experience. Mark Mettrick, Kocic's coach at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, recalls how Kocic spoke of the bombing during a team retreat.

"I think he was good for our team that he brought a different perspective on things rather than just the CNN one," said Mettrick.

The Loyola coach has seen the emotional side of Kocic that apparently rubbed some at Toronto FC the wrong way. Mettrick had no such problems.

"I thought he was refreshingly honest. He just wanted to be good at the end of the day."

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Growing up, Kocic competed in swimming, basketball and soccer. He started organized soccer at age 11, as a left-winger. At 13, he chose soccer as his preferred sport and switched positions after a neighbour, noticing his height, told him of a team in need of a goalie.

It proved to be a good move. Natural talent and some good coaching helped Kocic get noticed — in the region and nationally.

Kocic represented Serbia and Montenegro at the under-19 and under-21 level. A vice-captain, he featured in the second qualifying round tournament for the 2004 under-19 European championships and to this day remembers proudly the day as an 18-year-old when he received a letter summoning him to an under-21 squad that included Nemanja Vidic (now with Manchester United) and Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea).

"I was just happy to train with them," said Kocic, who played a couple of friendlies at the under-21 level.

Life was changing rapidly for Kocic.

The day after he turned 18, he left his hometown for Belgrade to join FK Radnicki.

His father had a restaurant in Belgrade and offered to put him up. But he was always working, leaving young Kocic alone in the big city.

"It was very scary, I was by myself."

But he was up to the challenge, fighting five other 'keepers at the club. Lady Luck intervened as two goalies were loaned out. Then another was kicked off the team after refusing to come out at halftime of a friendly.

Kocic was the backup for the first game of the season and then amazingly found himself starting after the No. 1 'keeper had a bad outing. Kocic saved a penalty and was named man of the match. He went on to play some 35 games that season.

He moved to another local team, which he says was owned by a mobster's family. He spent just six months there as the club eventually fell into disarray.

Brest, a French team, was interested but backed off after learning he was still somehow tied to the in-limbo club for another two years. Kocic was thrown a lifeline when his goalkeeping coach, knowing the young 'keeper had not signed a professional contact, suggested university in the U.S.

A string of connections — and a tape sent to soccer coach Dave Masur — led him to St. John's University in New York.

Kocic made his first-ever trip to Bosnia first, staying with a Muslim family while he took the SATs to ease passage to America. It proved to be an eye-opening trip.

"People were probably nicer than my neighbours in Serbia. They were so nice, took care of us," Kocic said.

"That tells you there's good and bad people, it's not about who's what, who's Muslim, who's Serbian, who's not, who's Catholic. It was a good experience."

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The unknown beckoned Kocic again in August 2005. Despite battling a high fever, he jumped on a plane with a Serbian friend en route to the Big Apple and St. John's.

"I landed in New York and I was expecting the movies. Big buildings, beautiful streets, everything nice," said Kocic.

Instead an assistant coach met them at the airport and took them through the 'hood to Queens.

"I was like 'What the hell is this?'" recalled Kocic.

The Serbs were taken to their new home, a house that had no bed — just a shared air mattress for the two Serbs.

"Every time he turned, I rolled over," Kocic said with a laugh.

The next day, he woke up and went out to buy some food.

"I don't know if it was because I was sick but my mind wasn't working properly," Kocic said.

Bacon back home was dried or smoked. Unknowingly he bought raw bacon and put it in a sandwich. He couldn't even chew it.

"I was so pissed off. I was like 'Oh my God, I don't like the States, I don't like America, I want to go home.' It took me probably six months to get accustomed to the culture.'"

Red-shirted as a freshman, Kocic didn't play. But he grew to love New York, especially at Christmas.

"It's probably one of the best cities I've lived in. After a while I learned the city, I learned everything about it. It felt so good to live there."

His scholarship was worth $500 a month spending money. Rent — with four living in two rooms in half a house — was $300-$350 a month although he got $50 off for doing the garbage every night.

He got a job in a mail room, then met some Serbians who were managing condos. He did everything from working as a doorman to babysitting to get some spending money.

"I did a lot of different things and it just made me appreciate everything," he said.

He did not appreciate St. John's soccer, however. Constant 7 a.m. training runs, no matter the weather, turned him off. The U.S. Army trained at same place "and they were training inside and we were training outside."

"And I'm a goalkeeper. All I was doing was running. I haven't caught a ball, I was running, running, running. I was like, 'OK I'm sick of this I see I'm not going to progress, I'm not going to get better, I'm just going to run.'"

A fellow Serb, midfielder Rade Kokovic, was playing at Loyola in Baltimore. Kocic visited the campus and fell in love with it.

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At Loyola, Kocic got a full ride plus generous expenses. As a red-shirt at St. John's, he did not have to sit out a year although he had to wait a year for senior Justin Chelland to graduate.

"My impression of Milos was that he was obviously extremely athletic, a good presence, very competitive and that he was always going to get better, that he had all the tools to get better because he was just so athletic and so agile and such a big presence," said Mettrick.

When Chelland left, it was Kocic's time and he started every game the next two seasons. But first he studied the school record book.

"Before the year started, I don't know why but I walked upstairs to see the records of everybody who played there. And I wanted to see the record for the most shutouts for the team, how many and how many games he played."

It was Zach Thornton and 17 shutouts in a season.

"I was like 'OK, I'm going to try to do that.' I ended up that year with 17 shutouts."

He also took time to learn about Thornton, who came from modest means to excel on the soccer field.

Kocic finished his Loyola collegiate career as a starter with a 37-5-2 record and 29 shutouts from 2006 to 2008. He also left with a degree in international business.

To this day, he is a big man on the Baltimore campus.

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Kocic went to the 2009 MLS combine after a trial with D.C. United that included a visit to RFK Stadium.

"I looked at the stadium and said 'OK I'm going to play here one day.' And my dream came true."

Still, he thought he would be picked by Kansas City. Instead D.C. United took him 21st overall, the second goalie behind Toronto's Stefan Frei (13th overall).

D.C. United already had Louis Crayton, Josh Wicks and a young Bill Hamid in goal. But Kocic was happy since Washington was close to Baltimore, where his girlfriend lived.

But his soccer learning curve was just beginning.

"I was a rookie, I was very immature about some things. I thought it was going to be as easy as college. I thought I was going to play for sure and that's the wrong mentality."

Like most, Kocic craves support. He says he didn't get it from his position coach at D.C. United. Frei did in Toronto, where he worked with Mike Toshack, now Portland's goalkeeping coach.

"If I see that they don't care about their players, I'm not in a very good relationship with people," Kocic said of his coaches. "If I see that we're in sync, then I'm going to die for you, I'm going to do whatever it takes."

Kocic played four league games for D.C. United in 2009, plus CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup games. He made it all the way to the U.S. Open Cup final against Seattle, only to have coach Tommy Soehn opt to start Wicks in the championship game.

"I was very mad. I earned my spot," said Kocic.

Ironically Wicks was red-carded in the 69th minute with D.C. down 1-0. Kocic came in and lost 2-1.

When Soehn was let go, Curt Onalfo — the coach he thought had wanted him in Kansas City — took over the next pre-season.

"I thought I'd be for sure playing. I played great. I had six games, six shutouts. And I started every game. And I wasn't good enough."

Kocic, who took up a valuable foreigner spot on the roster, was released at 4 p.m. during pre-season in Florida. Within two hours, Toronto FC, whose pre-season base was across the street, had signed him.

Not all was good. His girlfriend lived in the U.S. capital. "All of a sudden, there was pretty much a lot of mess."

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In 2010, with Preki as Toronto's head coach, Kocic found himself behind Frei and Jon Conway on the depth chart. Wanting to play, he convinced the team to loan him out to the Serbian White Eagles of the Canadian Soccer League.

"It was a great experience for me, otherwise I'd be not sitting all the time, not playing. I told Preki I didn't want to travel with the team if I don't play," he recalled.

"I am a proud person but I'm not stupid," he added. "Now kids today, they think they deserve to play all the time ... you have to earn everything."

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In 2011, Kocic started the season backing up Frei under the new Aron Winter regime. After spending the first half of the season on the bench, he went to see Winter and assistant coach Bob de Klerk.

"I said 'Guys, I'm ready to play,'" he recalled.

He got his chance July 27 in a CONCACAF Champions League game against visiting Real Esteli FC of Nicaragua.

Already pumped up for the game, his emotions went through the roof when his girlfriend told him that morning she was moving back to Washington, D.C., and breaking up with him.

"That whole day, I was in a state," he said.

A Kocic blunder cost a goal that night. Up 2-0, Kocic raced after a ball in the corner of the penalty box. When he failed to hang on, a Real Esteli player pounced on it and slotted it into the goal.

"We won the game and I said 'That's not going to happen again,'" said Kocic.

He played well in the Real Esteli rematch and then excelled in a league match at Real Salt Lake. An injury to Frei opened the door and, as the 2011 season wound down, Kocic had forced his way into the starting lineup.

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Kocic began 2012 with high hopes. Toronto kicked off the campaign with the two-legged CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final against the Los Angeles Galaxy in early March.

Winter called in both goalies, telling them Frei would get the start in Toronto and Kocic would play the second leg in Los Angeles. The first game ended in a 2-2 tie at the Rogers Centre and Toronto won the rematch 2-1 at the Home Depot Center.

Next up — following an enthusiastic team celebration — was the season opener in Seattle.

"Before that game Aron called both of us to come downstairs in the lobby and said 'OK Milos is going to start the first five games of the season and if he doesn't do well, Stef is going to take over.' So that's how my season started, as a starter."

Kocic played in Seattle, losing 3-1. Then Frei suffered a season-ending leg injury in practice back home in Toronto.

"Everybody in the media is like 'OK Stef is hurt, that's why Milos is going to be No. 1.' But I'm telling you what happened and you can ask Stef and you can ask Aron Winter. So I earned my job as No. 1."

It's a sore spot for Kocic, who felt even more belittled when Mariner moved down from the front office to take over as head coach after Winter left the club 10 games into the 2012 season.

"When Paul took over he told everybody that 'My No. 1 goalkeeper is injured, that's why we're struggling' but I don't think so. I think I had a very good year and I think I helped the team ... but we have to do it with a whole team.

"I just don't like the way Paul treated me," he added.

Kocic started 27 games in a season that went from bad to worse. It took a toll on the Serb, who wears his heart on his sleeve.

Kocic and Johnston were often the conscience of the team. But the season wore them down.

And Kocic says it became clear that the team did not welcome his candour.

"These people don't like that. They like us to hide stuff. I'm not raised that way. I'm not a person who is going to say something behind your back. I'm going to tell you what it is. In the professional world, maybe I'm not going to survive long.... It's very difficult for me."

Kocic's season essentially ended in early September with the arrival of his triplets. There were some complications after the birth and Mariner, showing his human side, gave the goalie time to look after his family.

Toronto turned to No. 3 'keeper Freddy Hall, subsequently released. Kocic waited for the season to end — anticipating a change in scenery.

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With Kocic gone, Frei rules the Toronto goalkeeping roost. Kocic wishes his friend and fellow 'keeper all the support in the world.

"We're very very good friends," said Kocic. "(It was a) very healthy relationship, (we) pushed each other to do better ... We're always going to be friends, there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that there it's one (starting) spot."

Kocic leaves, however, feeling he was never going to get a shot in Toronto.

"No matter what I did at this club I would never get a chance because Stef is an icon of this club."

The 26-year-old Frei made $175,000 last season.

Kocic always put up his hand — literally against D.C. United in October — when he made a mistake. But he insists some teammates didn't take responsibility.

Defending is a team effort, he notes, not the sole domain of the goalkeeper and the back four.

"If Iker Casillas was on this team, I don't think he would do any better," he said, referring to the renowned Spain and Real Madrid 'keeper.

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Looking back at his soccer career in Toronto, Kocic has warm words for many of the staff at Toronto FC. He is appreciative of Winter's efforts to help him off the field.

But like the fans that have deserted the club during its decline, he rues the mistakes made. He blames the poor 2012 and run of injuries on poor preparation in the pre-season.

"The players weren't fit, we had a bad pre-season, we hadn't done enough in the pre-season. I think me and Stef were maybe the hardest-working players on the field. ... If you're not fit, you get injured."

He says Preki had it right when it came to fitness.

"If this club kept him and let him do what he wanted to do, this club would be successful today, I'm telling you. If you ask the players who played, they were so fit, they hated him because we ran a lot, but they were so fit and so ready to play the season. And that's what you need.

"We weren't so technical, we weren't very productive up front, I remember with Preki, but we weren't conceding the goals so easy back then. I feel like were fighting for something, we had the hunger in ourselves.

"This year (2012), it's like you don't track your man and they score, it doesn't matter, let's move on. Conceding a goal was so easy and for me I was very competitive, it just like killed me at the end. I lost it at the end too. I kind of like melted into the whole thing. I really cared at the beginning and probably until the end of the season, then after that I got my kids and stuff and everything just changed."

Toronto has paid for its constant change, he says.

"If you keep changing like this, you're never going to have any results."

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Kocic speaks his mind. But his glass is usually half-full rather than half-empty. He wishes Toronto sports fans shared his view.

"It's a weird city. They only see negatives. I don't see these negatives," he said.

While he doesn't sugar-coat TFC's failure in the league, he wonders why supporters don't savour more the club's domestic and CONCACAF cup success.

"I think this city didn't appreciate that Nutrilite Cup (now Amway Canadian Championship) — winning it three, four years in a row. Champions League semifinal, the biggest result in the club's history, nobody ever said anything about it."

"I can say that I was a part of all the best results this club has — and all of the worst results this club has," he mused.

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Kocic's current contract expires at the end of this year. He doesn't hide the fact that he believes he deserves more.

"Of course you care," he said of the paycheque. "You play and never know what injuries are going to happen and you have to take care of your family.

"Of course I'm mad that I see the players that are making 10 times more money than me and don't contribute anything to the team and then you make 10 times less money than them and you give your heart on the field and they don't even say thank you. They don't even say congratulations."

Of the 18 goalies who started 20 or more games last season, Kocic was the worst-paid at $44,100, according to the MLS Players Union. Fourteen earned more than $120,000. Only three (Bill Hamid of D.C. United, Josh Saunders of Los Angeles, and Andy Gruenebaum of Columbus) made less than $100,000 and each of those collected more than $77,000.

Kocic is a proud man who says he does his best when his coaches demonstrate they have his back. Little things matter to him.

When the triplets arrived, a local beat reporter gave him a Baby Gap gift certificate to help buy clothes. He hugged the journalist, later confiding that the team hadn't even sent his wife flowers in the hospital.

"The players they do care about, they do treat nice," he said.

But apparently no one can count on that support. Kocic cites a player who was the flavour of the month in 2012. Thinking he was in a position to dictate terms, the player went in and asked for a pay hike. The club rejected the request out of hand.

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While his soccer career may have been checkered in Toronto, Kocic will always have ties to the city. He met wife Evelyn here — he was on a date with another woman at the time — and the two got married Aug. 8 in advance of the arrival of the triplets: daughter Soleil and sons Leo and Milos.

"It's a blessing," Kocic said of the unexpected baby bonanza.

Kocic's mother has come over from Serbia to help the couple with the babies. Kocic, his mother and wife look after the kids in shifts during the evening and night.

"It's been a year, a lot things happened but my life has always been like that," Kocic concludes. "A lot of turbulence in my life and everything but I'm used to that."

His journey continues.