By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

LEBANON – Scoring is the hardest part of soccer. So how does Krists Putans make it appear so easy?

The lanky Latvian exchange student, who’s been at Lebanon High for less than two months, would stand out even if he weren’t such an offensive threat. There’s his 6-foot-4 height and the flop of bright, blond hair atop a close-cropped ring that begins at the ears and extends to the back of the senior forward’s head.

Throw in narrow eyes and a piercing gaze, a light baritone and an athletic gait, and it’s clear Putans is out of the ordinary for these parts. It’s when the 18-year old possesses the ball inside the 18-yard box, however, that observing eyes widen and mouths pop agape.

Less than three days off airline flights that carried him nearly 4,000 miles from home, Putans ran onto a through ball and broke in alone on the goalkeeper during an August scrimmage at arch-rival Hanover. Many high school players wilt in that spotlight, struggling to sprint, dribble and shoot smoothly. Putans, however, never broke stride while firing the ball into the upper, left corner.

On the jubilant visitors’ sidelines, glances were exchanged. The new kid had polish. His team collected a 2-0 victory over one of New Hampshire’s flagship programs and a bushel of confidence.

“It’s the efficiency of finishing that’s a clear plus skill with Krists,” said 28th-year Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone. “It’s not that he doesn’t ever miss, but for some people, when a chance comes up, it’s like they’re throwing darts blindfolded.

“There’s a split second where certain players process the moment and they’re not just shooting to get it on the general target. They’re shooting at a target within the target.”

The Raiders trailed at Stevens, 2-0, during intermission of their first regular-season game, when Johnstone learned something else about No. 19. After Lebanon had rallied to force overtime, the newcomer was adamant in the huddle that the visitors would win. 

Sure enough, Putans soon slalomed past two defenders and bore down on Cardinals goalkeeper Cooper Moote, opening his hips and beating the netminder low and to one side. Undefeated Lebanon has outscored its opponents, 41-1, since halftime of their opener and Putans has piled up 11 goals and eights assists this season, tallying in every game.

“I see the openings and when I decide where I’m shooting, I don’t change my mind,” he said. “Even if the goalie’s going to change his position, I will still shoot, but with more power.”

Putans said he tries to keep the ball close to his feet, using peripheral vision and touch while sizing up a scoring chance. He’s not exceptional at dribbling through crowds and often appears to be just drifting about the offensive end without the ball. 

Woe to the defender who doesn’t mark Putans closely, however, for the Latvian reads play brilliantly and accelerates into open space at just the right times.

In central midfielders Ryan Oliveira and Daniel Mladek, Putans has teammates who can hold the ball long enough for him to slip open and who are skilled enough to deliver passes that lead him through the defense. The newcomer teams at striker with speedy sophomore Nick Brill, who’s learning how to work give-and-go feeds with his older position mate.

“I try to set up my teammates for the pass and they pass back to me and I use the chance to score,” Putans said. “Assists are the same as goals, because you participate in the play. So I’m happy, no matter what.”

Putans hails from Latvia’s capital, Riga, a 900-year old city of roughly 630,000 on the inland end of a Baltic Sea gulf of the same name. It’s across the sea from Finland and Sweden, bordered to the north by Estonia and the southwest by Lithuania. 

Riga is 500 miles west of Moscow and Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, although the move was not recognized by the U.S. and Western European powers. Soviet rule ended during the early 1990s.

That’s ancient history to Putans’ generation and he attended an English language immersion school while growing up. He also played soccer from a young age, but for a club organization and not a school, which is common outside the U.S. Initially a right wing and then a central defender, Putans was switched to forward three years ago. 

Latvian players’ opinions are rarely considered in such moves, it seems.

“He’s used to getting screamed at during soccer, where here, everyone is polite and kind,” chuckled Ugis Gruntmanis, father of the Plainfield family hosting Putans and an endocrinology physician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Said Putans: “Here, I can do all the things I know how to do, but I can play more freely and pass and dribble the ball a lot more.”

Ball movement is the key difference between the European and North American soccer styles, Putans said, noting that he almost always played on artificial turf in Latvia. The sport moves faster on that surface, forcing competitors to think and react more quickly. Two touches to settle a bouncing ball is a luxury one doesn’t always enjoy.

In New Hampshire, Putans has not only found the game a bit slower, but more physical. That doesn’t seem problematic, for the striker has an edge to him and although slim, more than holds his own with grappling defenders.

“You have to know how to play with your body more,” Putans said. “You have to put your body in front of your enemy so he doesn’t get the ball or so you get fouled.”

Johnstone has coached foreign students before, some of whom were touted in advance. All were nice kids but nothing special on the field, he said. Putans, however, has made a believer of his boss.

“He has the technique, the muscle memory and the physical ability to capitalize,” Johnstone said. “Against good teams or ones that are super-organized on the back end, you’re only going to get a few scoring chances and that’s why finishing is so important.”

Putans likes to watch video of the world’s best strikers in action and when they give interviews. Many of his heroes are known for outsized egos, but he’s shown none of that at Lebanon and used excellent English, a humble demeanor and a sly sense of humor to win over his teammates.

“He’s fit in seamlessly and I’d like to think that’s partly because we have a welcoming group of guys,” said Johnstone, noting that Putans’ arrival meant less playing time for several other players. “But he’s a personable young man. There’s no diva in Krists.”

The chain of events that eventually placed Putans among the Raiders began in 1999, when his parents visited the United States. Through some mutual friends, they were put in touch with Ugis and his wife, Tereze, who were living in Los Angeles at the time. Ugis was participating in a UCLA fellowship.

The couples stayed in touch after the Gruntmanis family’s move to Dallas, where they dwelled for 17 years. In December of 2018, Ugis, Tereze and their son embarked on a lengthy trip to places such as Colorado, Hawaii, Japan, Vietnam, Bali and Singapore before winding up in their native Latvia. There, they met Krists and told his parents they’d be willing to host him as an unofficial exchange student should he want the experience.

Turns out, he did, becoming the third Latvian teenager to live with his parents’ friends over the years. By that time, roughly a year ago, the family had settled in Plainfield after examining the Upper Valley based on good memories of a 2007 visit to Dartmouth with the eldest of their two daughters.

The Covid pandemic delayed Krists’ arrival, but he participated in Lebanon’s conditioning test only hours after arriving in America and scored against Hanover two days later. 

Ugis Gruntmanis, who was a bobsledder in his youth, has found the teenager friendly and easygoing. He and his wife speak Latvian to Krists and their seventh-grade son, Teo, while the boys talk to each other in English. The youngsters are looking forward to snowboarding together in the winter.

Putans said he was understandably nervous for his first day at Lebanon High, but knowing other soccer players made his debut bearable. There are times when he doesn’t understand exactly what his teachers say, but their willingness to elicit and respect various viewpoints and debate is a pleasant surprise.

“In Eastern Europe, you do the task and don’t ask many questions and you move on,” Urgis Gruntmanis said. “School is much more engaging here and you’re tested and moved up and down based on your ability. In Lativa, the work for everyone is exactly the same and you can be held back by the laggards.”

Putans’ effort and desire aren’t in question, on or off the pitch. Johnstone is grateful that fate brought such a gifted player and engaging person into his program and is helping the teenager investigate the possibility of playing for a U.S. college. 

Putans needs to return to Latvia for his final year of education in ira high school system, but hopes to follow the path of his older brother, Karlis, who played NCAA Division I soccer at Fairleigh Dickinson (N.J.) University roughly a decade ago.

“We’re off to a good start and Krists has been a big part of that,” said Johnstone, whose team is at Oyster River on Tuesday in a matchup of 7-0 teams. “What he brings is critical on any team that has any aspirations to achieve a lot.”

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