by Jeff Crandall
Chicago’s ethnic clubs were the real driving force behind the game before the professional era began and today, many of them still exist. Over the next few weeks, ChicagoNASL.com will explore the history of some of Chicago’s top amateur ethnic sides. First up, RWB Adria…
A Friday in early March sees me earn an invitation to the south side to attend a Fish Fry at the headquarters of one of Chicago’s most successful amateur clubs. Upon my arrival, I ring my contact, but he’s running a few minutes late.
“Go in the back, the guys will take care of you,” he said.
Stepping down the back steps and into the clubhouse, I’m met by a man who’s speaking Croatian with the few bar patrons. The look on his face is one of surprise – I’m obviously not a regular.
“Hi, I’m Jeff, I’m here to meet Ante,” I tell the questioning face.
“You want beer?” he says in accented Croatian as he hands me a liter of Karlovačko.
My contact arrives a few minutes later and says, “I told you they’d take care of you. This is what we do.”
This is the clubhouse for famed amateur side RWB Adria, a staple of Chicago’s Croatian community and the club that holds the title as “Illinois’ Winningest Soccer Team”.
After a quick chat catching up with my contact, club president Ante Loncar, I can see why the moniker fits. Taking me upstairs, he shows off all the trophies the club has won since its formation by a group of Croatian immigrants in 57 years of existence.
“Space has become an issue,” Loncar says as he walks me between a filled-to-the-brim front hall trophy case and an adjacent storage room which holds over 100 more pieces of hardware, including Illinois State Cups, Amateur Cups and plenty of Croatian National Soccer Federation trophies.
“Maybe we’ve won too much,” he joked.
Started in 1959 by a group of Croatian immigrants, the club’s early goals were to use soccer to unite other recent immigrants and as a way to promote the Croatian name during a time the nation was under rule by communist Yugoslavia. Their original desire was the keep the name simple, just as “Croatia”, but the Illinois State Soccer Association wouldn’t allow club entries to hold direct, national names.
Instead, two of the club’s founders, Zeljko Starcevic and Ivica Berkaovic, figured out a way around the roadblock, proposing the name of “Adria” for the Adriatic Sea which lines the nation’s western border. The “RWB” abbreviation at the beginning of the name represents the colors of the Croatian flag – red, white and blue.
Though the club won early and often, Loncar says the community aspect RWB Adria provided for recent Croatian emigres was more important that on-field glory.
“There was a comfort level for people that were new to the United States,” he said. “People didn’t speak English, so they could go to soccer games on Sunday after church. They speak Croatian at church, they go to the soccer game and they speak Croatian. English was for when they went to work. I think the main emphasis of the team was community, being together and to kick a ball, because everybody loves to play soccer in Croatia.”
Heading back downstairs in the clubhouse, about 20 members arrive as the fish fry is underway. We’re joined by Loncar’s brother Mark as I sit down to a huge plate of grilled fish, garlic potatoes and sliced onion.
“This is a delicacy in Croatia,” Loncar says. “Just be careful of the fish bones.”
As I dig into what was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, Loncar explains how over time the club has changed, seeing a number of non-Croatians wear the red, white and blue colors. I ask him to tell me about some of the club’s more famous players and his eyes light up.
“Eusebio,” he says.
Yes, the legendary Portuguese footballer who won the Golden Boot at the 1966 FIFA World Cup also suited up for RWB Adria in the late 1970s. Having played for Toronto Metros Croatia in the old NASL, Eusebio already had a history with Croatian people. One day, he received a call from former Boston Tea Men teammate Tony Dallas, who was playing as RWB Adria’s goalkeeper, explaining there was a group of Croatians having some success in Chicago.
“Tony asked the board of directors if they’d be willing to fly Eusebio in from Boston to play and it was a no-brainer. Everybody knew Eusebio. Sure enough, we brought him in. When we advertised that we were bringing in Eusebio, everybody was like, ‘Nah come on, what’s he doing playing in a regular league?’ Sure enough, once he came and they saw him on the field they knew it was him with his golden feet.”
“He had a very close bond with Croatian people. He loved the fact that we were a nation, but we weren’t yet a country. He felt fascinated by that history. He would pick up words in Croatian — there’s an old Croatian saying, “Za Dom Spremni” — he would always yell out, which means ‘Ready for your homeland’, and he was honored to play with us.”
While Eusebio is the most famous, Adria has also seen a number of legendary Chicago players wear its colors. Chicago Sting favorite Pato Margetic, who was born in Argentina, but has Croatian ancestry, used to fly back from Detroit on numerous weekends to play for the club. He was joined by another Chicago Sting legend in Teddy Krafft, while former Chicago Power players Michael Richardson and Mirko Castillo also suited up.
While Adria has moved away from being a mostly Croatian club, there’s still plenty about them that helps long-time supporters from the Croatian community identify with them.
“We’ve been blessed to have two or three Croatians in the starting lineup the last few years,” says Loncar We have a lot of Bosnians. Believe it or not, we don’t have that many Croatians, but our official language in the locker room is still Croatian. The Bosnians share the same language, our goalkeeper was Macedonian, which is the same language, so at one time all the Americans wouldn’t know what our coach was saying. Score a goal, defend it, there’s not much to tell a player. We still try to bring somebody back and forth just because of identity. It helps the old-timers remember what they did. It’s not always easy because people aren’t coming over like they used to.”
The mixture of players hasn’t hampered the club’s on-field ambitions either, with the club winning the 2011 and 2013 National Amateur Cup, U.S. Soccer’s Hank Steinbrecher Cup in 2014 and the Great Lakes Premier League last season. Additionally, Adria went on a run to the third round of the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, coming within minutes of setting up a derby date with the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park, before falling in extra time to the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
As I delve more into the Open Cup run, Mark cuts me off.
“We also take a lot of pride in being champions of the Croatian-North American Soccer Tournament,” he said.
Contested continuously the last 52 years between North America’s ethnic Croatian clubs, Adria and their closest rivals, Toronto Metros Croatia, are deadlocked at 15 championships each.
“Between the two teams, we have over 50 percent of the championships. It’s a great rivalry we have with them, when we played them in the Toronto area, 3,000 people come to the final game.”
While Adria doesn’t receive quite as much of a crowd at home, they still tend to draw several hundred people to their bigger games on the south side. This despite the fact that the Croatian diaspora in the area has moved further and further away from the area in recent years.
As I finish up my fish I ask about the history of the club house. Lined with photos and memorabilia of past RWB Adria squads, like so many other pieces of the club, this also has an interesting history.
“It was originally bought by the club in 1962 or 1963,” says Loncar. “They had it for about eight to nine years, then they sold it to a political organization – The Croatian Resistance Force – who had it for a while, but then they sold it back to the club. So however you look at it, it’s been in Croatian hands for about 70 years, it’s been a staple of our community all along.”
Along with holding fish fries during lent, the clubhouse hosts an annual bull roast to celebrate Croatian Independence Day in August and is the meeting point before and after home games and ahead of road trips.
“It’s very important for a club like us to have a base,” added Mark. “Even if this neighborhood doesn’t have as many Croatians, it’s still a staple of our community here. There is so much history and good memories in the building.”
“Of course, we need a place to store our trophies too.”
All photos for this story were provided by RWB Adria