The Columbus Crew hope to bolster its back line, along with its playoff prospects in a tight Eastern Conference, with the addition of Austrian veteran defender Emanuel Pogatetz, who played most recently for Germany’s FC Nürnberg.
The 31-year-old Pogatetz, nicknamed "Mad Dog," was a free agent and eligible to join Columbus following the closure of the summer transfer window. SI.com learned of the signing through a league source over the weekend and reached out to Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, who confirmed it. On Monday, Pogatetz revealed on his personal website that he signed a 3.5-year deal with Columbus that would make him "the 5th highest paid defender in the MLS."
Pogatetz likely will be available for the Sept. 20 game against the New England Revolution. He’ll play in the spot vacated by Costa Rican World Cup star Giancarlo González, who was transferred from Columbus to Palermo last month for a fee that reportedly neared $5 million.
“I think the fan base was very understanding of this sale and it was something that we had to do,” Berhalter said of the González transfer. “The impact it can have on the long-term future of the club – that’s why we had to do this.”
Berhalter said Sunday that the Crew’s pursuit of a second Designated Player will continue. Meantime, the club will welcome Pogatetz, who “has a different profile than Giancarlo,” according to Berhalter.
“He speaks perfect English. He’s a leader. He’s been the captain of many of the teams he’s been on. He’s tall. He’s a guy that, across the board, can help with the culture of this club. He’s seen professional soccer at a high level for a very long period of time,” Berhalter said, adding that Columbus beat out an unidentified German Bundesliga team for Pogatetz’s services.
Pogatetz launched his pro career at Austria’s FC Kärnten before moving in 2001 to Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen, where he was a teammate of Crew legend Frankie Hejduk. Most U.S. fans will remember Pogatetz for his five subsequent seasons at Middlesbrough, which spent most of his tenure in the English Premier League.
He then bounced between England and Germany from 2010 until this summer, playing for Hannover 96 (as a teammate of former U.S. linchpin Steve Cherundolo), Wolfsburg, West Ham United and FCN (as a teammate of current U.S. fullback Timmy Chandler). Pogatetz has played 61 times for the Austrian national team and was named his country’s captain in 2009. He started each of Austria’s three games at Euro 2008.
Pogatetz’s vigor hasn’t always been a positive. It’s often mentioned that he was booked 20 times during his first two seasons at Middlesbrough, and he’s been suspended twice for tackles that broke the legs of his target, most recently in 2008. His disciplinary record over the past four seasons is better – 16 yellow cards and two reds in league play.
“I believe we can make the playoffs with the group we currently have,” Berhalter said Sunday, shortly before the Crew (9-9-9) eased past Chivas USA, 3-0, to move into fourth place in the East.
That being said, Columbus isn’t standing pat. The club remains atop the league’s allocation order and very well could make a play for free agent forward Kei Kamara, 30, who made his name with Sporting Kansas City but spent his first two professional seasons in Columbus. He wouldn’t be able to appear this season because he was under contract at Middlesbrough when the MLS transfer window closed, but Berhalter has plenty of time before the allocation order resets. Since Kamara would be returning to MLS after leaving for a transfer fee, he would be required to go through the player-distribution mechanism. There is interest on both sides, according to another source.
Berhalter told SI.com that he’s committed to adding to the squad and that owner Anthony Precourt is urging him to “move the needle.” The Crew tried to sign U.S. national team midfielder Mix Diskerud last month, but the negotiations broke down at the finish line.
“The timing wasn’t right there,” Berhalter said. “We were right there. It was ready to go. We needed maybe a little less time pressure on it, and I think that’s what eventually got it blocked … Although we were negotiating, speaking with him for months, it came down to the wire and it became too much.”
Diskerud was in line to receive a significant bump in salary if he left Norway’s Rosenborg. Berhalter said Precourt “was more than willing,” to spend what it took. Columbus will spend considerably less on Pogatetz, but it will remain on the lookout.
"Anthony is pushing me,” Berhalter emphasized. “He said, ‘Let’s get creative and let’s go after guys’ and I love doing that."