KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Krisztian Nemeth might be middle-aged for a striker. In the non-football world, though, 26 is still a little young for a guy to be referred to as “old-school.”
But for the coach who first saw him as a 13-year-old, Sporting Kansas City's Hungarian forward is a throwback to the way the game used to be played in their shared home country.
“He represents the old, traditional Hungarian players who are smart, quick and always ready to do something which is not a usual thing or decision in certain game situations,” Istvan Urbanyi, now a coach in Sporting's youth academy, told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Thursday. “That's what we call 'street smart' over there.”
Nemeth, who joined Sporting this past offseason from Dutch side Roda JC Kerkrade, has already shown what that brand of instinctive football can do for his new club in the clutch.
After starting Kansas City's first two games and then missing the next two with a strained right knee, Nemeth entered as a second half sub and figured in both of Sporting's stoppage-time goals as they came back from a 2-1 deficit at the end of regulation to beat the Philadelphia Union 3-2 on Sunday.
First, his run into the box froze Union 'keeper Rais Mbolhi, preventing him from making a play on Jalil Anibaba's 91st minute headed equalizer. Then, after a 94th minute corner kick from Benny Feilhaber, Nemeth ran onto Matt Besler's flicked header and poked in the match-winner at the back post for his first MLS goal.
“He can smell the situation,” Urbanyi said. “To score a goal, almost two goals in the last two minutes – you have to be lucky to be in that situation, but the other side is that you have to smell that situation, where you should be. That's what he can do.”
It's what Nemeth has been able to do for a long time, Urbanyi said – and the first time he saw the teenaged forward's skill, it was at the expense of his own youth side.
“I was coaching MTK [Budapest], one of the most traditional Hungarian academies, and he just killed us,” Urbanyi said. “He scored two goals and he was definitely the best player on the field. So I just told my players and my colleagues, 'OK, we're not going to lose to this team next year, for sure. So he and two other boys came to my team. My goal was to bring the best players together in the best environment for the players to develop and for their best progress, and so I coached him from age 13 to 16.”
Now he's 26, a seasoned professional and full international, and already coming up big for Sporting, who host Real Salt Lake on Saturday in a Western Conference matchup (7:30 pm CT, 38 the Spot, SKCTV). And that's with only the preseason, where he led Kansas City with five goals, and five regular season matches under his MLS belt.
“The preseason is obviously different from the season,” Nemeth told reporters after the Philadelphia match. “I have to concentrate now to keep the goals coming during the season. I hope I can keep this longer than one game. But it's always special, always.”
The American game needs more of Nemeth's brand of skills and style, Urbanyi said, from MLS down through the youth ranks.
“I remember my childhood, and then maybe the next generation got that,” said Urbanyi, who played for the then-San Jose Clash in 1997 and 1998 but spent most of his professional career in Hungary. “When we started to play on the street – 1-v-1, 2-v-1, 2-v-2, whatever number we had, we played.
“Sometimes there were no goals. Sometimes there was no direction of play. We just played for fun, which gave you the right way to make decisions, what to do with the ball, what to do if you have to play against two players. And we mixed the age groups. Now we educate kids, instead of figuring out the natural way of doing something.”
That's not far from what Sporting manager Peter Vermes, the son of Hungarian immigrants and a former club teammate of Urbanyi's, recently recalled when talking about the value of street soccer in teaching survival skills and toughness in the game.
And when Hungarian players learned those things growing up, Vermes told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday, people noticed.
“Hungarians used to be called 'the Brazilians of Europe,” said Vermes, who played alongside Urbanyi at Hungarian side Gyori ETO FC in 1989. “There's a technical understanding that those guys have, a technical proficiency that they have that I think is a quality that anybody would want to have in the team, no matter who they are. But obviously, I relate to those guys. I'm Hungarian as well, and so it works well for our team.”
Vermes' relationship with Urbanyi, and Urbanyi's with Nemeth, proved important in landing a player Sporting had wanted for years – even before he signed a highly-publicized deal with Liverpool in 2007, when he was just 18.
“The first time I saw him, I don't remember if he was 17 or 19, but we just saw really good quality,” Vermes said. “The thing we didn't know was that he'd just got bought by Liverpool, and we weren't going to compete with that.”
Nemeth excelled with Liverpool's reserves but never played a competitive senior match with the Premier League side, eventually leaving for stints in Greece, a short move back to MTK and then the Netherlands. His career in Europe was punctuated by injury – including a fractured cheekbone, sustained in 2009 while on loan to Blackpool.
“I don't think the English academy was the best for him,” Urbanyi said. “He did great over there, but Liverpool is just too strong. It's not easy to get into the first team. So you have to play with the reserves, and the reserves are more physical, and he got injured. So that's probably something that could have changed his career if he goes, say, to Holland or Spain or Portugal, where developing players means something different. But it's always a question. Nobody can tell who's best at an early age.”
Being out at Anfield, though, meant being back on Sporting's radar.
“He went to Holland, and that kind of took me by surprise,” Vermes said. “And then another friend of mine called me and said, 'Hey, you know, there's a good chance if you want to get him again.' I tried in the summertime, but it just wasn't working out.”
Then Urbanyi, who joined Sporting's academy staff in 2014 after coaching the Maldives national team, got involved in Nemeth's career once more.
“We were talking one day,” Vermes said, “and I said, 'You should get in touch with him and see what his story is.' So he did, and then a couple of other things happened, and it just happened.”
It was the right time and the right situation, Nemeth said.
“I needed the experience that I had, and now I feel good and I can give my best to the club,” he told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “It's always been a chance to play in MLS, but I think I'm coming at a good time. I think the league is growing, and it's a good time to come into the league and show myself professionally.”
Having a manager of Hungarian descent, who played there professionally as a striker – not to mention all the street ball he played during childhood visits – and speaks the language fluently doesn't hurt either.
“Peter knows what we have as Hungarians,” Urbanyi said. “I'm not talking about the current Hungarian soccer, because we have problems over there. It's a long story. But he knows the traditions. He knows the culture of the Hungarian soccer. And MLS gives (Nemeth) the other part, which is organization, professionalism. That's a very good foundation for being successful.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.