KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After 16 years plying his trade in Europe, Nikos Kounenakis was looking for something different.
He found just that in Major League Soccer. The Wizards announced the club agreed to terms with the 32-year-old Greek defender on Tuesday, adding even more depth to a back line that also includes the recently acquired Shavar Thomas.
“I’ve been playing in Europe since I was 16 years old,” Kounenakis said. “I’ve played in Belgium. I’ve played in Holland. I’ve played in Greece. I personally needed a new challenge.”
That challenge will come in Kansas City, where Kounenakis spent 10 days on trial in June and impressed the coaching staff enough to elicit an offer.
It’s easy to see what manager Peter Vermes saw in the rugged center back during that trial. Kounenakis exudes professionalism, and his veteran presence and vocal nature on the field should add even more stability to a Wizards defense that has struggled at times this season.
And, unlike many other foreign acquisitions, Kounenakis also speaks English fluently.
“I got to say he is a really determined guy,” Vermes said, “which helps because he takes the initiative on himself.”
Kounenakis made it clear that his only goal in Kansas City is to win and help take the team back to the playoffs after a disappointing first half of the season. He acknowledged that many in Europe still view a move to MLS as a kind of sporting retirement, but bristled at any suggestion that he was here for anything but business.
“I’m not here for holiday,” he said. “I didn’t come for tourism. I came because I want to help Kansas City reach the playoffs. It is as simple as that.”
“Everything appealed to me about the MLS,” Kounenakis added. “When Americans want to do something, they do it right. I know that soccer is on the uprise, and I think people would be surprised to see what state it’s in here.”
Kounenakis should also bring some bite to a Wizards back line that has been especially susceptible to giving up soft goals this season. Midfielder Craig Rocastle – who spent the 2008-09 season at Greek club Thrasyvoulos – played against OFI Crete when Kounenakis captained the side in the Greek Super League and said the defender had a healthy reputation in Greece.
“He’s played at a good level for a long time,” Rocastle said. “In terms of Greek players, no disrespect, but he is kind of a warrior type. Some of the Greeks are a bit softer. He is more on the warrior side of putting your body where it hurts and putting your body on the line.”
Vermes said Kounenakis may or may not play in the team’s high-profile international friendly against Manchester United on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, depending on how the staff evaluates his level this week in practice.
Kansas City will also have to make a roster move to accommodate Kounenakis’ place on the team, a move Vermes expects to be completed sometime next week.