Hours after St. Louis University was bounced from the Atlantic 10 soccer tournament, Robert Kristo received a text message from assistant coach Tim Kelly, who has known the senior forward for nearly a decade.
Kelly asked Kristo to visit his room and after a brief chat gave him an assignment.
Kristo was to call on his lifetime of experiences to make a list of things that anger or motivate him. The point, which both player and coach understood, was that anger and passion ignite Kristo on the soccer field.
That level of motivation is not always present. And with Kristo facing the end of his career at SLU starting with tonight’s NCAA championship opener against Tulsa at 7 p.m. at Hermann Stadium, a new approach was in order.
“I sat down and thought about things that could get me mentally ready,” Kristo said. “Things that will fire me up from the first moment I step on the field.”
His first thought was the desire to make his Croatian parents proud. And that stems from their decision to remove their only son from harm’s way amid war in their home country when he was an infant and eventually to St. Louis when he was 5.
“I connect to personal issues like being raised in a war and going through that with my family,” he said. “Understanding what they went through gives me that mental toughness.
“It’s more of an anger thing. When I get angry and want something done, I’m going to get it done. Sometimes I lack that little edge on the field. But when I get it, I feel like I’m on a different level.”
The Billikens (13-4-2) are hoping for that level tonight — the one that has helped the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder produce 13 goals, which is tied for fourth nationally. The one that has led opponents to double- and triple-team Kristo.
He enters the postseason with 40 goals and 14 assists in 73 career games. He was a third-team All-American for the second time in 2013 and this season was named the A-10 offensive player of the year in addition to being a candidate for the Hermann Trophy.
“I think he’s the most dangerous attacking player in the country,” SLU coach Mike McGinty said. “Not only does he score goals for us at an elite level, he is a complete handful for opponents to have to manage and deal with.”
And for that, Kristo gives the credit to his parents and an often tumultuous relationship with his father, who started a trucking company to support the family several years after arriving in the United States in 1998.
That came after a hand grenade exploded outside of their house in Croatia not long after Kristo was born. Looking to escape, they bounced to Bosnia, Sweden, Poland, Germany and back to Croatia before moving to St. Louis.
The Kristos lived downtown with seven family members in cramped quarters before moving to West County, where Jvica Kristo eventually built a house with his own hands.
Jvica and his wife, Sendi, worked in a factory to make a life for themselves and Robert, who was expected to make good grades and perform on the soccer field or face consequences. There was a palpable pressure that prompted him to run away, usually no further than a friend’s house within an hour of home. There were also moments at youth soccer games when he wanted to hide.
“A lot of times my dad would walk up to the sideline next to the ref and start yelling to get me to understand what I needed to do,” Kristo said. “It wasn’t a punishment. He wanted to teach me and back then I hated him for it. I was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re embarrassing me.’ He embarrassed himself as well. But if he hadn’t done those things, it wouldn’t have led to where I am today.”
Kristo sometimes threatened to quit soccer, most notably after a poor showing at a game on a snowy day when he was 13. On the ride home, he told his father he was done and skipped practice the next day.
Jvica Kristo responded by cancelling his son’s cell phone and Internet service. He told Robert that because he was quitting soccer, he was to focus on school and prepare to get a job at 15.
“I realized I was being immature,” Kristo said. “He was hard on me, but I don’t regret any of it. I think it was every bit that I needed.”
Although he left his war-torn country at an age that challenges the memory, he has heard stories from his parents and researched the events that forced them to leave.
“I lost family and friends and a lot of things that you can’t get back,” Kristo said. “That’s something that really hits where it hurts. My parents had the guts to pick me up when a bomb hit outside our house and save my life so I could have a better life while other kids couldn’t.”
Kristo was an All-Metro selection at Parkway North before heading to SLU.
He wanted to leave after his junior year for a shot at a Major League Soccer roster but that plan didn’t materialize. He will graduate a semester early to train with the hope of being invited to the MLS combine.
But that is not necessarily his first choice.
“Europe is a very high probability,” he said. “It’s going to come down to where I’ll fit best and be happy and comfortable. I feel Europe has a lot more to sort of teach me soccer-wise.”
But he has other business waiting. Kristo said he fell short of some goals this season that he feels were part of the reason the Billikens didn’t achieve some of their goals, such as an A-10 title.
And part of falling short, he believes, is his own inability to muster the “edge” he needs to be at his best every minute of every game. It’s a shortcoming he has sought to fix for some time.
He’s been working on his list in search of an answer.
“There are times I lack that edge, then it will hit me and I’ll snap,” he said. “I think it’s a temper thing, an Eastern European thing. That’s just how we were raised. And I use that fire for the field.”