BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, January 17, 2012
As the Israeli Premier League moves into the final third of its season, Hapoel Kiryat Shmona has emerged as the surprising leaders and they are anchored in the midfield by American Bryan Gerzicich.
Gerzicich, 27, has been playing professionally in Israel since 2007 after he left Argentine Primera club Arsenal de Sarandi to sign with Hapoel Haifa. In 2010 he joined a newly promoted Kiryat Shmona team and in his first year the club finished in fifth place.
Now in his second year, the team has its sights set on a league title as they currently have a 19 game unbeaten run in Premier League and have opened up an eight point league over second place Ashdod.
"The reason I think that things are going well here is that the team is well-equipped with great organization, be it players as well as a solid coaching staff," Gerzicich told YA from Israel. "This is reflected on the pitch as things are going well. I am playing at a good level but I want to continue to progress."
In a league that is usually dominated by Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Tel Aviv, and Maccabi Tel Aviv, it is the league's smallest team based in the northernmost town in the country that has been dominant. To many followers of the Israeli Premier League, it is inconceivable that a club of such a small size is now in first place at such a late stage.
Kiryat Shmona play in a small stadium that fits 5,200 but generally the club only draws around 2,000. The town's population is around 23,000 people and it sits on the Lebanon border thereby making it within close proximity to the dangers of the Middle East conflict.
Their best ever season was in the 2007/08 when they finished third and qualified for the UEFA Cup. They were eliminated in the second round of qualifying.
This year Kiryat Shmona are winning convincingly against the traditional powers of the league and it's part of a fearless attitude Gerzicich and his teammates have.
"I think that even though Kiryat Shmona does not have much history, the club currently has little reason to envy larger clubs as Kiryat is growing rapidly," Gezicich said. "Hopefully, we will soon begin to make history."
The biggest reason for the team's success this year has been their defense. Through the first 21 games they have posted an astonishing 14 shutouts and have only allowed ten league goals.
Gerzicich is currently the team's starting defensive midfielder and he has been instrumental in the team's rock-solid defense. Despite that, he feels that the primary reason is that the coaches have instructed that all players play aggressive defense at all times.
"We have a lot of tactical order during entire games as the entire team defends when opponents attack," Gerzicich explained of the defensive success. "In today's football, it is important for all players to commit when needed."
With Kiryat Shmona's lead up to eight points, many fans and media have been to openly speculate that the title is now theirs. Even head coach Ran Ben Shimon has said he is not afraid to talk about it.
Gerzicich is far more reserved in his approach. He stresses that while he and his teammates remain confident in their ability to win any single game, they are still taking each game as it comes and are not looking ahead.
"The mood here is great," Gerzicich stated. " All the players are happy but aware that we have a ways to take things game by game as we have thus far. I have a lot of confidence in my teammates but I am taking things one game at a time."
Club officials at Kiryat Shmona have also been very impressed with Gezicich who has earned positive reviews for his consistently strong play this year. He has earned the reputation of being one of the best defensive midfielders in the country and club officials reportedly set to offer Gerzicich a new contract extension in the near future.
The need for an extension is important because it is becoming increasingly likely with each passing week that Kiryat Shmona will be taking part in next year's UEFA Champions League for the first time in the club's history.
Gerzicich was born in Los Angeles and moved to Argentina before his first birthday. He has often stated that playing internationally for the United States would be one of the top goals he could accomplish in his career.
The other top goal, however, would be playing in the Champions League and that may become a reality soon.
"It's something great," Gerzicich said of the Champions League. "It is a tournament every player dreams of playing in, as you face the best European players and teams."
As for now Gerzicich remains focused on winning the title with Kiryat Shmona and he understand that the stakes have now risen. Kiryat Shmona has been a surprise up to now but that will no longer be the case moving forward.
"I think that I am," Gerzicich concluded when asked if he and his teammates are taking the country but surprise. "Hopefully, I can continue on this path. Otherwise, everything accomplished will be forgotten."
Gerzicich and Kiryat Shmona host sixth place Ironi Nir Ramat HaSharon FC this Saturday.