Fourteen hours after his team clinched its first MLS playoff appearance with barely a celebratory spray, Minnesota United midfielder Jan Gregus went back to work Thursday morning, alone at a mostly deserted Blaine training facility.
Gregus hit the gym and did some regeneration work for Sunday’s fast-approaching game against Los Angeles FC.
“I have my routines,” he said.
Those routines are one reason United coach Adrian Heath calls Gregus a player whose “professionalism is off the charts.”
They’re also the traits of a soccer coach’s son who, as a 4-year-old, started kicking a ball behind his family’s home in a Slovak city of 100,000. His father, also named Jan, kept videos going back as far as his son can remember.
“He showed me the road, but I have to walk the walk,” Gregus said of his father, whose own playing career was shortened by injury. “My father showed a football to me and I’m glad for that. He taught me from a young age to work hard and be humble, and all this is from him.”
Now 24 years later, Gregus and four-time MLS All-Star Ozzie Alonso are the heart of a significantly improved United midfield that he calls “still and strong.” Along with five other new starters this season, they transformed a team that didn’t sniff the playoffs in its first two seasons into one that can finish as high as second in the Western Conference.
“I don’t know how it was the years before here,” Gregus said.
Alonso is the 11-year MLS veteran defensive midfielder, still steady and savvy at age 33. He plays just in front of United’s back four, connecting it from deep with the team’s attack.
Gregus, 28, is a national team member in his country and a first-year MLS central midfielder. A runner, passer and free-kick specialist, he’s 6-3 and a big-shot threat from distance — a skill that has not yet been fully utilized.
“We know each other better now,” Alonso said. “We do our job to make the guy next to us play easy, play better. He does what he does. I do what I do. It’s good for the team. We accomplish a lot together because we both like to keep the ball and we have good balance. When he goes forward, I stay. When I go, he stay.”
Leap of faith
An FC Copenhagen player for three seasons in Denmark’s Superliga, Gregus says he made a leap of faith last winter when he left European soccer in midcareer for the United States and MLS sight unseen. Single and a self-taught English speaker who learned from watching American television shows, he signed for $883,500 in total compensation as one of United’s three allowed designated players (DP). All to play an often underappreciated role, doing the little things.
“Whenever you bring in a DP, there’s an expectation,” veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay said. “You have to understand the player and what value they bring. It might not always be goals and assists.”
For the record, Gregus has a goal and 11 assists — many of them from corner and free kicks — in 28 MLS games.
“He keeps things ticking over there at midfield,” United defender Michael Boxall said. “The transition there from last season to this season is a huge difference. The ground he covers from box to box is massive.”
Now with 32 MLS games gone, Gregus has become a steadying field presence and trusted teammate in a new league and a new life. He looks stoic on the surface but can be silly on the training field and fiery on game night.
“When I come over here, I swear in American,” he said. “When I don’t want anybody to hear, I swear in Slovak.”
He is well-read, mischievous and a fight aficionado, joined at the hip with road roommate and goalkeeper Vito Mannone. He is by far United’s biggest Mike Tyson fan after he met the former champ once at a public appearance in Copenhagen.
“Vito and I, we like UFC,” he said. “We have our favorites. It’s the most real sport in the world because you can’t fake it.”
Gregus also makes something of a fashion statement on warm days when he wears short shorts to training.
“It takes time,” Heath said. “He’s an integral part of what we’re doing now. His English is perfect. He really has been welcoming to the foreign guys who have come in. He looks after his body incredibly well. He does everything that’s right for him. I’ve told the younger guys if you want to know what it takes to be a professional, look at Jan Gregus.”
Gregus calls himself comfortable in Minnesota and in MLS “from the beginning, from the first game.” But it took until later in his first season for Alonso and Gregus to get recognition nationally as one of the league’s more underrated midfield tandems.
“I don’t care, to be honest,” Gregus said. “I don’t care what others say. I just do my best and if the team is successful, I am happy. I try to be better every single day. Find the small mistakes and try to be better. Sometimes, it was better. Sometimes, it wasn’t.”
He clowns with Mannone until both often are the last players to leave the training field, or jumps onto Romain Metanire’s back before practice without warning.
He calls Mannone “crazy” for how much he sleeps and calls himself “comfortable to do anything” around Metanire.
“It’s that kind of friendship where you don’t care what you do to him,” Gregus said. “It’s like family: You do whatever and if he gets mad, that’s even better.”
He has found a new home in a Minneapolis apartment, with two gyms and a pool and something of a new family so far from home after nine months in Minnesota. He left Europe after his career seemed to stall in Copenhagen and United called.
“This switch to U.S. football seemed for me the best option,” Gregus said. “I didn’t know what it’d be like, but I wanted it to be successful. And I still do. I don’t say we’re, like, finished or something like that. We have more to do. I made a choice and that’s it.”