April 21, 2024

Chess, Dejan Joveljic says, is all about thinking ahead, being patient and working the board to your advantage. And if you do all that correctly and in concert, you can bend an opponent to your will.

Which explains how Joveljic put the Galaxy in check this winter.

Joveljic is a national master in chess, rating him among the top 1% of players worldwide, while in soccer he has started for Serbia in qualifying for the European Championship. But since joining the Galaxy in the summer of 2021, he has felt like little more than a pawn in the team’s plans, starting fewer than half the games in which he appeared.

That’s not exactly the role he envisioned.

“I am the future of Galaxy,” he said in an infamous TV interview 11 months into his MLS career. “If you ask me if I am happy when I’m on the bench, of course I’m not.”

Yet Joveljic remained patient, thinking two or three moves ahead as the Galaxy played out their gambit. Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the team’s captain and leading scorer when Joveljic arrived, is gone now. So are Tyler Boyd, last season’s leading scorer with seven goals, and Billy Sharp, who had six.

In fact, of the eight players who have been listed as forwards on the Galaxy roster over the last 2½ years, Joveljic, 24, is the only one remaining. If that was his plan — sacrificing the better part of two years to win the starting job this season — it worked.

Now comes the hard part: proving it was worth it.

“Someone will say [it’s] pressure, someone will say no pressure. But if we have a good team, if I have good, top wingers, Riqui [Puig] behind me. I’m not afraid of anyone,” he said. “It’s not confidence. That’s a fact, OK?”

“To be honest, I never felt like a starter,” he added. “But this season, hopefully I’m going to be that guy.”

Despite his limited playing time, Joveljic scored 19 goals and had nine assists in his first three MLS seasons. This year, with an offense built around him, Joveljic is predicting 15 goals and a playoff berth as a minimum.

So are the Galaxy, who have already spent a franchise-record $10-million transfer fee to pry winger Gabriel Pec away from Brazilian club Vasco da Gama to provide service for Joveljic. And the team is committed to adding another winger, though that addition might now be delayed until the summer transfer window.

“We think we can open up the face of the goal and allow him to be the striker I think he’s capable of being,” said Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, who determined Joveljic had earned the chance after watching him in training over the last three years.

Galaxy striker Dejan Joveljic celebrates after scoring against the Houston Dynamo in October 2022.

Galaxy striker Dejan Joveljic celebrates after scoring against the Houston Dynamo in October 2022.

(Michael Wyke / Associated Press)

“What we’ve said is, ‘Hey, we’re going to put pieces around you. And now you’ve got to become the goal scorer that we have seen you be. And we need you to do that over 90 minutes on a consistent basis.’”

Vanney really had no other choice. Not only are the Galaxy paying Joveljic more than $651,000 a season through 2025, the team has just one other forward on the roster who has played more than 80 minutes in MLS. That, too, was part of a plan to show confidence in Joveljic and keep him from looking over his shoulder because there really is no Plan B.

Now it’s up to him to prove that confidence has been well-placed and that he truly is the future of the Galaxy.

“He knows he needs to step in and be effective. It’s important for him as still a developing goal scorer to understand what those things are for him to be effective,” Vanney said. “But he should feel like this is a real opportunity for him to take the reins and to try to be that guy.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Joveljic has proven himself to others. Although he started playing chess with his father and grandfather at age 5, he said he really didn’t focus on the game until being overcome by boredom during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Working with international master Miodrag Perunovic, coach of Serbia’s reigning European championship chess team, and playing online, Joveljic quickly improved, eventually ranking among the top 7,500 players in the world. As a result, he quickly outclassed teammates Jonathan Bond and Uri Rosell, the Galaxy’s other chess aficionados last season.

“This is no chance,” he said. “It’s like I play against some guys golf. I don’t know how to play golf. It’s the same when I play chess against them.”

Instead, he’ll play online or, when the Galaxy have an open Sunday, go to Santa Monica where the Santa Monica Chess Club offers open play.

“Most people don’t know how stressful chess is,” he said. “It’s very hard to play chess. And physically, you have to be prepared. Imagine sit[ting] for four or five hours to play one game and after five hours of playing you make one mistake and you’re completely crushed. So it’s not easy.”

Yet that fits Joveljic’s personality. A perfectionist, he cringes — and often corrects — when people mispronounce his name (for the record, it’s day-YAHN YO-vul-ITCH). And he rarely opens up in interviews, offering nothing more than short, colorless answers, partly because he’s afraid of making a mistake in English, one of three languages he speaks.

It also fits his intelligence and intolerance of boredom. Before advancing his chess game while idled during COVID, he learned how to solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 40 seconds while battling mononucleosis as a teenager.

Joveljic also has a playful side though. Asked whether he and Galaxy teammate Novak Micovic ever talk about people right in front of them in Serbian, he declines to answer.

Then he breaks into a wide smile.

“Every day,” he says with a laugh.

Joveljic has played just once this preseason because of a hip injury, which is concerning since the Galaxy’s MLS opener with Inter Miami is less than two weeks away. Then again, given his penchant for filling down time with something productive, maybe the injury will allow him to master the violin or study theoretical physics.

However, nothing will ever replace soccer, he promises.

“This is my hobby, chess,” Joveljic said. “But nothing can compare with scoring goals. That’s the best feeling.”

Checkmate.

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