“It’s up to me now to prove”: Hungry and motivated, David Milinkovic relishing opportunity with Vancouver Whitecaps

Before COVID-19 rocked the global football world, forcing delays and cancellations all over the planet, the Vancouver Whitecaps had gotten off to a solid start in MLS, paced by strong performances from the likes of David Milinkovic, a new arrival this offseason. Recently, we had a chance to interview Mlinkovic, as he took the time to give us insight into how his adjustment to Vancouver has gone so far, both on and off the pitch. 

When things go wrong, sometimes all you need is an opportunity. 

For winger David Milinkovic, that opportunity presented itself in Vancouver, after things had gone south during his latest stint, an 18-month odyssey in England. 

During that time, of which he spent at English Championship side, Hull City, Milinkovic ended up on the outside looking in, both in terms of his place in the squad and in the minds of fans, as a couple of spats made him an unpopular figure. 

So when the Vancouver Whitecaps came calling, his ears certainly perked up. A team, who much like Milinkovic, who was trying to rebuild itself after a tough year, the Whitecaps were looking for help on the wings, and a look at the French/Serbian dual national’s profile certainly suggested that he could be one to help them. 

The ‘Caps first order of business, however, was to pick up the phone, and speak with him about what had happened since Milinkovic had moved to Hull from Hearts of Midlothian in Scotland, where he had starred, before things went awry in England.

Intrigued by the possibility of this move, the winger shot it straight with the person on the other end of the phone, his future head coach, Marc Dos Santos, and with that, it helped pave the way for his arrival. 

“My impression (of the club) is very good,” Milinkovic told BTS in an exclusive interview last week. “Because the coach (Dos Santos), before I came, talked with me: ‘David if you come here, you have to give 200% effort’, so I said: ‘when I come there, I won’t give you 200%, I’ll give 1,000% for you’. Because I like to play, and I’d like to show you my best level of what is possible for me to give on the pitch, because I’d played very, very well in Scotland, one year and six months ago, and after this, I’d gone to Hull, and there it wasn’t as good.”

“I didn’t play many games last season, so when the coach called me to come to Vancouver, I spoke directly with him and said: ‘When I come there, I’ll give 200% for you.’”

And with that, a new chance was given, with Vancouver presenting itself as the metaphorical land of opportunity. After a good chat with who his future head coach, he was given the green light to sign, with one message in his mind: train hard, and your chance will come. 

“And then the coach after spoke with me and said: ‘Okay, you want to give me 200%, show me, and if you show me that in the training and in your preparation, I’ll give you a chance’,” Milinkovic continued. “After this, I came, and my impression has been very good, because the coach is very good, he talks with every player on the team, every day, about his instructions, about how we like to play in the game, what our tactics are, in the attack, for defending, for attacking, for corners, everything.”

“So when you go on the pitch, it feels easy, because you know everything that you need to know, which makes things easier for us, the players, to play our best. He explains things so well, him and his staff, which has been magnificent. “

As a result, it’s given the Whitecaps a player who looked born again in their strip, with Milinkovic winning plaudits early on for his stellar performances in both the preseason and in the first two regular-season games. 

Not only was he tearing apart right-backs on the pitch, as well, but he had been gaining respect off of it, as he has by all accounts done a great job to integrate himself into this group. Still only 25, he fits nicely into this side, whos average age of just over 24 makes it MLS’s youngest. 

And with Vancouver being a modern city, one that is quite attractive to people of Milinkovic’s age, it’s been a good match so far, both on and off the field, one that he doesn’t mind prolonging. 

“Yeah, I’m very impressed, this city is very beautiful,” Milinkovic said. “I’m happy, because here is a very good place, to live, to play football, and now it’s up to me, it doesn’t mean that because you love that you stay, I need to prove (myself) on the pitch when I have the opportunity to play.”

“Because firstly, this is my work, and at my work, I want to give my best for my staff, for my club, our supporters, so that if I play well, then the club would like to sign me permanently. For me, then I’m happy, because my objective is to stay here. But for me to stay in Vancouver, I’ve got to play good, at my level.”

So even though he got things off to a great start with the Whitecaps, at least before this COVID-19 pandemic that has ground most of the world to a halt had anything to say, he remains focused on keeping this relationship with his new team on solid ground, paving the way for a longer-term commitment. 

“(So far), I’ve played two games,” the winger continued. “I played very good the first two games, but I’m sure that I have more potential to play much better. This is just the first two games, it’s normal that I’m playing good, it’s not me at my best, but I’m happy. And I would like to play soon, to come back with this team, to prove my best level to the team, and after that play good all the way to the end of the season.”

“After, it’s up to the club to decide for me and say: ‘Milinkovic, you’re staying, or you’re not.’ For me, already I want to stay in Vancouver, but for that to happen I need to play well on the pitch.”

And that motivation is exactly why he had raised eyebrows early on, in a good way. 

Be it his sour experience at Hull, one that certainly made him realize that a career in this game can be short, or his busy CV, one that has seen him bounce around many clubs without a stable home, he seems to have a newfound perspective on things now. 

Or maybe it’s the prospect of becoming a father, something that is mere days away from happening, of which he spoke glowingly about.

“Oh, I feel really well,” Milinkovic said excitedly of his impending fatherhood. “I’m excited, because a new normal is coming soon, he’s due at the beginning of May, anywhere from the 5th to the 10th, so I’m very excited. The coronavirus came, so we have to stay at home, but that means that I have more time for my wife now, to stay with her, to prep for when the baby comes.”

“And I’m very happy that my first baby is Canadian, because he’ll get to be born in Vancouver, and for me, that’s very good. Yes, coronavirus is here, but it’s been no problem, I’m at home with my wife, it’s okay. When she has appointments at the hospital, I go, and then come back home, as it’s important to stay home for now.”

Either way, something has clicked inside of him, and he’s come to Vancouver ready to take care of business.

Which luckily for the club, it has given them a hungry player on a risk-free transaction, with his loan deal, which comes with an option to buy, as safe as a bet as they could take on anyone. 

“When I came to Vancouver, I came very frustrated,” Milinkovic said honestly. “Because I didn’t play last season, so I was coming here to prove myself to our supporters, my coach and the club. Last season, I didn’t play much, so now I have the will to play, to provide everyone with my level, so I came to MLS to play the most games there, to play well for my team, and to go to the playoffs, this is my objective.”

Milinkovic in action vs Sporting Kansas City on opening day (Beau Chevalier/BG Media)

“The coach (Dos Santos), before I came, talked with me: ‘David if you come here, you have to give 200% effort’, so I said: ‘when I come there, I won’t give you 200%, I’ll give 1,000% for you’.”

Milinkovic on Marc Dos Santos

On the pitch, Milinkovic is certainly a unique breed of winger, one that has seemed to be a dream match for coach Marc Dos Santos so far, with the Canadian coach expecting different things from his wingers. Instead of having typical wide players, who prefer to hang high up the pitch, Dos Santos likes his wingers to drop back and help out defensively, preferring them to attack from deeper positions. 

As a result, he expects a lot from his wide players, who have to do a lot of dirty lifting on both sides of the ball. They are often very engaged in the high press, acting as the second layer of protection after the striker, Lucas Cavallini, but also help the team transition from deep-lying positions, also acting as the link between the defenders/midfielders and the forwards. 

It’s not a job description for the ill of heart, but luckily for Dos Santos, he has a faithful soldier in Milinkovic, who has a style of play that can be best described as intense. 

Yeah, I have a style of play,” Milinkovic said. “When I’m on the pitch, I give 200%, I kill everyone on the pitch, for my team, for my staff, for my coach, for the supporters. Because first, when I go onto the pitch, I play for one club, and at this club, when I am there I show as much respect (as I can).”

“So, my style of player is one who when he’s on the pitch, he gives 200%, he runs too much on the pitch, so when maybe I lose a pass or a cross, I run to get the ball back every time. This is my style of game. I love to play at 200% from the first minute to the last minute, I’ll give 200% for my team, that is my style of play.”

That means that when it’s go time, it’s go time, and anyone on the other team who tries and impedes that has to be ready to suffer the consequences. The Whitecaps want to play in your face football, and that desire comes from all 11 players through to the manager, Dos Santos, who spent this year’s preseason instilling those philosophies into everyone’s minds. 

As a result, it has made the Whitecaps a team that they hope other teams don’t want to play against, with their style of play promising a long night for anyone who tries to take things easy either offensively or defensively. 

From minute 1 to 90, the team wants to stay locked in on both sides of the ball, with an emphasis on working extra hard when they find themselves without it, with each player having a different responsibility to fulfill. 

And from what we’ve seen so far, there seems to be some early merit to what they’ve implemented. Besides a blip against Sporting Kansas City in the home opener, where they looked frazzled by the enormity of the occasion, they had a strong preseason, and closed out their pre-COVID MLS life with a statement win over the LA Galaxy in LA, one that did a lot to raise the morale of players and supporters alike. 

A big part of all that? Their hard work off the ball, with Milinkovic playing a big role in helping that part of their game shine early on in the season. 

“Yeah, but in football, when you would like to play good, and you would like results, and you want to go in the playoffs, and if you would like to play good in the year up until those playoffs, to get those objectives, it is important to defend very well,” he explained. “From the first defender in the team, who is the striker. And when your striker is defending very well, the wingers follow, and after that, the whole team is following, as it’s much easier for your team when the wingers are coming back to help you there your defenders.”

“And I love this, because I love to run back to help my team, it’s very important. And it’s happened in the game that maybe Ali (Adnan) talked with me and said: “David, no, you stay in the attack’, ‘No, I’ve come to help’,  ‘Okay no, stay’. ‘I came because I love to help you, Ali, I don’t just like to stay in the attack, I like to take the ball.’”

He added: “When I lose the ball, it’s the same for me. I need to come back for my team, to help my team, because if you want to win in MLS, you have to run a lot, because the league is very hard. So when the wingers are coming back, the striker is coming back, it’s more difficult for the other teams to score one goal.”

“When you defend well, put everything in the defence, after you get to go all together in attack, which is very good. You get results when you come back to defend, it’s normal, at least for me it’s normal.”

That doesn’t mean he is all about defence, however. That’s just something he prides himself in doing, but he finds himself equally comfortable in attack, as he showed in those early games. 

In the SKC game, for example, he found himself 1v1 with Kansas City right back, Graham Zusi, in a wide area, and he turned it into a winding and twisting run, one that finished with him squaring the ball to Jake Nerwinski for a tap-in goal. 

While the team went onto lose that game, despite the fact that Nerwinski’s goal tied things up at 1 in the 28th minute, it gave fans a taste of what Milinkovic can do offensively, as well. 

And it’s something he hopes to do a lot more of, preferably in front of the BC Place faithful, of whom he spoke very highly, as he takes a lot of pride in being able to contribute on both sides of the ball. 

“No, that action in the first game, when I gave the assist to Nerwinski, is my kind of play,” Milinkovic said. “My style of play. We lost the first game, it’s good that I did one assist, but we still lost this first game. But I really like to play in this stadium, because the stadium is very beautiful. The atmosphere is fantastic. And I hope to play very soon in the stadium (when we’re) back, and that I can give assists in the same action.”

So does he place any offensive expectations on himself as a result?

“And, to add eight/nine assists, seven/eight goals, that is for me (personally) my objective,” he added. “Because when you say to a player that you have to go on the pitch and when you don’t give objectives, it’s normal to take charge of your own personal objectives. For me, this season is very important to prove myself to everyone, and I would like to play at my best level in Vancouver.”

Milinkovic dancing around Graham Zusi shortly before setting up Jake Nerwinski against SKC (Keveren Guillou)

“That action in the first game, when I gave the assist to Nerwinski, is my kind of play.”

Milinkovic on his opening day assist

Obviously, now, talk of football potentially returning seems distant, with the short-term future of MLS being a question that pretty much no one has a response for. 

Some leagues are starting to return to action, but due to MLS’s unique financial situation, they find themselves in a position where they may have to wait a little longer than most to do so, with the need for an alternative situation becoming more and more likely by the day. 

That has made things tough for the players, who have been unable to train since March, forcing them to stay fit within the confines of their home, knowing that they have to be ready whenever the time to return does come about.

“Now, it’s a difficult situation, because I don’t play, I don’t (go to) training, but I’m training at home every day and it’s very hard, because I have one program, and every day you have two sessions,” Milinkovic explained. “It’s one in the morning, and one in the afternoon at five o’clock, and it’s important to do the training because you need to be ready for when you come back to training, because I don’t know when we come back with the team, but you have to be ready for when that training starts (again).”

But besides that, it leaves one’s daily schedule quite empty. 

So how does Milinkovic fill his days? 

Spending time with his wife, preparing for their baby, while also cooking and doing some other stuff. 

And besides that, it never hurts to take a bit of time for himself, of which he does from time-to-time.

“Relax, cook with my wife, watch a movie, play a little bit of PlayStation, FIFA and Fortnite with Cristian Gutierrez, my teammate,” he said. “This is what I do to relax. I also prepare for my baby, because I’m very excited, and that time is coming very quickly.”

If not, getting some air is always a good option, especially with a recent spike of good Vancouver weather.

“Oh, the city is beautiful, it’s the best city that I’ve seen in my life, really,” he said with a laugh. “Because it’s magic, you have the sea, the mountains, it’s very good. The people here have a good ‘joie de vivre’, it’s beautiful really, you have everything in one city. For me, that is magic, it’s a very good city, and I love this city. “

But at the same time, as nice as it can be to find yourself quarantined in Vancouver, he’s certainly itching to get back to regular life, as are many. 

Which when it does, he has a few things that he wants to get out of the way right away.

“The first thing, for me, is to take my car, and drive it to the training ground, to see my team, the staff, everyone, and to train,” Milinkovic said when asked of two things he can’t wait to do when this quarantine is over. “That is my first wish. My second is to go outside with my wife, to take a coffee normally, with people around as normal. Those are two simple things, but they’re the sort of things that I really miss doing.”

It’s that routine that drives him on, as he longs to return to the regimented days and schedules. That can be the hardest part of social distancing, and it’s certainly something that most people have realized that they actually do miss about daily life. 

Coming from someone who is a big fan of having a routine, so much so that he wore gloves in the muggy California heat against the Galaxy, you can see why he missed it so much. 

Speaking of which, how did that gloves thing come about?

“Nah, it’s a superstition that I play every game with the gloves,” he laughed. “I don’t know why, but when I don’t play with my gloves, in the end, I don’t play well. I need to play with my gloves, in the training, in the game and, everyone asks: ‘Why did you take the gloves to LA, it’s good weather’.”

“Nah, for me it’s important to have, because if I don’t have my gloves, maybe it goes to my head that I won’t play well, but when I play with my gloves, we won in LA (for example), so maybe it’s okay.”

Lucas Cavallini, Derek Cornelius, Milinkovic and Jake Nerwinski celebrate a Cavallini goal against Minnesota in preseason (Keveren Guillou)

“The people here have a good ‘joie de vivre’, it’s beautiful really, you have everything in one city. For me, that is magic, it’s a very good city, and I love this city.”

Milinkovic on his impressions of Vancouver so far

He only may have played one game at the stadium, but another place surely high up his list of things to visit is BC Place, of which the team only got a small taste early on. Due to the fact that all of their preseason games were played in the US, they only actually played in Vancouver once in 2020, with it being that home opener against SKC. 

So when the COVID-19 related shutdowns hit, certainly one sour memory was that opening day defeat, one that certainly everyone would like to have back. For whatever reason, the ‘Caps came out flat, leading to a disappointing loss, one that had people worried about the rest of the season. 

While they redeemed themselves 7 days later against the Galaxy, they had still yet to bring the redemption full-circle by winning at home, something that they were surely planning on doing before everything slowed to a halt. 

But in those short but fleeting 90 minutes, no matter how tough the result, it gave the team a good look at the BC Place crowd, especially for newcomers such as Milinkovic, who only had good things to say about his short experience with his new home stadium. 

“It’s really impressive,” he said honestly. “It was magic really. I came in there, and when I saw the supporters before the game, it was impressive really, it was very good. The supporters that were there are very big fans of the club, and I love this.”

“When I see that the supporters before the game are coming to support us, you have more quality to play better, to give 200% for these supporters, because they’re big fans of the club, and I love this, to play in this place. Vancouver is a very good club.”

But as great as the atmosphere was, the loss did ring some alarm bells, especially considering the Whitecaps woes at home last year.

Once upon a time, BC Place was a fortress, but in recent years, that hasn’t really been the case, so when that early loss happened, you wouldn’t blame anyone from going “oh no, not again.”

But one thing Milinkovic made sure to outline was that this team is going to be different from last year’s side, with the 2019 ‘Caps often struggling to create much in terms of positive momentum. Victories often came in isolation, while defeats came in pairs and triplets, so when this early loss happened, they wanted to make sure that it didn’t turn into anything more than a minor setback. 

So in a sense, the victory down in LA shouldn’t be a surprise, at least if Milinkovic has anything to say about it, as he said it was very much about proving a point. 

And who knows, maybe that victory can be a catalyst, one that can launch them to bigger things when they return. Can BC Place be a fort once again? They certainly will try their hardest to make it one, that’s for sure, with the Galaxy victory hoped to be a turning point in the Dos Santos era.

For sure, because after the first game, when we lost at home, every player was very frustrated, and want to prove to the coach (Marc Dos Santos) and the supporters that this is not the same team as last season’s, so it was very important to go take a result in LA,” Milinkovic said.

“The coach was very nervous after the first game, and that’s absolutely normal because we didn’t take those first three points at home, so for LA, the coaches told the team: ‘Guys, today you have to win, because it’s important for the supporters.So if you want to show me your personality and whether you have the quality, show me today, because today you’re playing against a very good team, one that is in the top three of the MLS’.”

“That day was a day to prove that I can play good, so I go to LA with very good energy, and on the pitch, I played good, everyone in that game played very well actually.” he continued. “We won, showed great desire, limited their opportunities, and put together what was an overall memorable performance.”

“It showed everyone the team we had, that us winning is no fluke, that we were ready. Unfortunately, the coronavirus halted that momentum, but we’ll pick up where we left off, and we’ll give more victories like that to our supporters.”

And it’s hoped that this renewed sense of belief from the players and coaching staff alike can lead to new frontiers. The 2019 season was a trying one, no doubt, but if lessons can be learned from it, it can be looked back upon a little more fondly, but that’s only going to happen if the team improves.

It’s tough to imagine that now, especially with this COVID-19 situation, as it’s put so many things on hold, but when things return, it’ll give everyone a good chance to see where this team is at, as they look to prove if they’re more the team that played in LA than the team that played against SKC, starting with that first game back. 

At the very least, Milinkovic believes that his team is more the team that we saw in California, so it shows that the players are believing in themselves, all that’s next is to turn it into results. 

Something which the winger hopes to be around to help do. 

“Last season (2019) was not the best (for the ‘Caps), but that happens in football,” he said. “And now this year, we have one very good team. And I’m very, very proud of this team, because the level of the team is very good, I played two games, one win, one loss, and it’s okay. We win against the LA Galaxy, who are a very good team.”

“After that, you have to stop, because the coronavirus came, and it’s difficult, because now we don’t play, but I’m sure when I come back with the play with the team and the train with the guys, I’m sure we’ll go to the playoffs. With this mentality and attitude in the pitch, I’m sure that the team is going to the playoffs already, because we have a lot of quality in the team.”

Yordy Reyna and Russell Teibert meet Milinkovic to celebrate shortly after he set up Nerwinski for his goal against SKC (Beau Chevalier/BG Media)

“It was magic really. I came in there, and when I saw the supporters before the game, it was impressive really, it was very good. The supporters that were there are very big fans of the club, and I love this.”

Milinkovic when asked about his impressions of the BC Place crowd

This might not have been where Milinkovic thought he’d be at this age, at least maybe when he was 18, but he’s here now, so he’s happy to try and make a difference for this club. MLS might not be the standard-bearer league that it would have hoped to be at this point, but it’s certainly done well to progress as it has so far, as it’s not the worst place to be at this stage in players careers anymore. 

If anything, it’s become a league that has become especially attractive to attacking players, with the free-flowing style of play proving itself to be a dream for those who like to make things happen offensively. 

Along with good crowds around the league, at least for the most part, it’s given MLS a unique cache among global circuits, making it more attractive for those who are on the fence when a call to come over arrives.

Milinkovic admits as much. 

“No, I’d seen the MLS, I’d follow it all of the time, because in MLS you have very good players playing there,” he said when asked about his prior knowledge of the league. “Now you have (Luis) Nani, before you had Zlatan (Ibrahimovic), Kaka, you had some very good players, (Wayne) Rooney, (Bastian) Schweinsteiger, and I followed this league because it’s one league that is beautiful, because when you see one game, it’s crazy.”

“You see it in every game, you see a free-for-all. And (the level) is very good, it is the same, a little bit like the English league (Championship). We have more space for the attack, and I like this. When you see one game, every time, every team, the stadium is a full public, and I love this because the supporters are coming every time. (Because of that), playing in every place in the MLS is very good, because the stadiums are full and this is the best feeling for a player.”

But don’t get him wrong, it was as much about the people in charge at the club, along with the total package, that swayed him to come to Vancouver. He might have enjoyed watching MLS, but that doesn’t mean anything without a suitable offer to come, which doesn’t always materialize for some players.

It did for Milinkovic, however, and a few months later, it’s a decision he’s happy to have taken, with the positive signs he received early on so far proving to be true. He made it clear that he moved to Vancouver to join the Whitecaps because the club and city was attractive to him, not just because it was in MLS, and for that, it made it a move that made sense for him. 

“No, I moved to Vancouver because Vancouver is a very good place,” he said. “Before coming here, to see the videos of the supporters of the team, to see everyone in the team, they had good players, so (even though) last season, the team did not play very well, after I saw the videos and the city and everything, I wanted to come on the first day.”

“When the coach and the (Sporting) Director (Axel Schuster) called me, I wanted to come on the first day, to come here to this place, to prove everyone and play. 

So now, what’s next for the Frenchman? He’s happy here, both on and off the pitch, and he seems eager to continue this journey, he just needs the opportunity to play and flourish, whenever that is deemed possible due to COVID-19. 

He’s in a unique situation, as his loan status will be uncertain when this is over, but he’s sure that he’ll get to play more than the 2 games he has had so far before the time to make a decision happens, allowing him to try and fulfill the goals he believes this club can reach. 

After hitting a tough road bump in his career, he’s in a unique spot where he needs the club as much as it needs him, and he’s happy to try and give them joy as long as he wears its shirt. 

Which is why when this is all over, he has some lofty objectives he believes this club can reach, which in turn should help both he and the club in their quests to redeem themselves.

And from what we’ve seen, it’s been positive returns so far, so don’t be surprised if they find a way to reach them, pushed on by Milinkovic’s will to redeem himself and help this team.

“Now, I’m in Vancouver, I am very happy to have signed for this club, and I hope really to stay here for a long time,” he said honestly. “Because I love the city, I love this club, and it’s up to me now to prove on the pitch, my level, and help my team go to the playoffs. Because for me, that’s my objective, to go to the playoffs with this team, because in the team we have quality, and I’m sure that if you play the same level as LA, as we did, you can make the playoffs.

He added: “And I’m ready (to return) because this season is very important for me, and I hope to come back soon, because I need to play, really.”

This article was run in collaboration with B&G Media. Check out their twitter (@b_and_gmedia) and Instagram (@bg.media) for more content related to this interview, and stay tuned for more!

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