Can special talent Andrija Novakovich solve the USMNT's problems?
TAMPA, Fla. -- When Andrija Novakovich was growing up in Muskego, Wisconsin, his father, Mane, noticed some traits in his older son that hinted at success on the soccer field. It wasn't so much his son's dribbling technique or his ability to score goals, though he showed off immense ability in both areas. It was more his personality.
"Andrija was a more mature kid even when he was little; he always made the right decisions," said Mane by telephone. "He was real low-maintenance and he was so determined. When he gets something in his head, he goes for it."
That combination of maturity and drive, not to mention a 6-foot-4 frame that includes some nimble feet, has the younger Novakovich rising through the ranks of the professional game. After scoring 19 goals in 35 leagues games in the Dutch second tier with Telstar, he has now moved up a level to the Eredivisie, netting four times in eight games with Fortuna Sittard. That strike rate has him pushing to make an impact with the U.S. national team.
With the U.S. set to play Peru at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, on Tuesday (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET), and with manager Dave Sarachan hinting strongly that there will be significant changes to the U.S. lineup from the side that lost to Colombia 4-2 last Thursday, Novakovich is hoping to get on the field for his longest stint yet and show off his blend of skills.
"I think I'm a bigger guy that likes to do things that a big guy doesn't like to do," he said last Saturday at the U.S. team hotel. "I like the ball at my feet. I'm not just like a target man; I don't just like to play with my head. I like to take guys on and be in one-vs-one situations and be dangerous that way. And I think that's the unique side of my game, and I think it's something different from the No. 9 position."
An assortment of YouTube videos back up that assertion, revealing a forward who can score in a variety of ways be it with either foot or his head, while showing off some impressive close control.
"The fact that we're continually calling [Novakovich] back shows that there's progression," said Sarachan prior to Sunday's practice. "As I've gotten to know him, he offers a little variety as a forward. He's not just a back-to-goal guy. He can move in different ways than some of our other forwards, and the hope is that he'll get a good run-out against Peru."
The game's roots run deep in Novakovich's immediate and extended families. Mane had long played in the ethnic leagues in the Milwaukee area for teams like United Serbians and Milwaukee Serbians, when he began raising a family of his own, it wasn't even a question of what sport his sons would play. There were no shortage of family members to play with or compete against either, with Andrija going up against younger brother Rade as well as cousins Leki and Luka Prpa, the latter of whom is a former U.S. U17 international.
With an emphasis on ball control and technique, Novakovich's father and uncle, Tihi Prpa, were his coaches starting at U6 level.
"That's when everybody bunched up like they were getting ice cream," said the elder Novakovich. "Then we finally kept working at it and by the time they were about 10 or 12 years old, they were a pretty good team. Then we let them go to the real coaches I guess you could say. We made sure they had the basics."
Andrija added, "There was always this camaraderie of soccer, and competitiveness, a very close bond with all of us, growing up playing at the same club. My cousin and I were the same age but everyone else was kind of older, a year older, but we just wanted to stick together. We were always together playing."
There were many summers when the extended Novakovich family would pile into cars and head off to whatever tournament came calling, with trips to California, Texas and Florida.
"We turned it into a family vacation," said Mane. "We'd all just get in the car and go to a tournament. We enjoyed it. We miss it now."
Andrija progressed through the Development Academy ranks with the Chicago Magic, which required one-hour trips each way just to attend training. Some stints with the U.S. U-17 and U-18 teams got him noticed by overseas clubs and with the Golden Ticket of a U.K. passport thanks to his mother, Zorka, Andrija ultimately signed with English second tier side Reading.
The adjustment of going over at 17 had its usual challenges, but these were made easier by the fact that he had an aunt, Nada Buckley, along with three cousins about an hour away in Bicester.
"It was very difficult," he said. "You're alone in 'the digs,' as they say, with a host family. You're just in this house with some people you don't know. But my aunt and my cousins over there, they really helped me massively. When I had a day off, I would 'go home' as they say and go to them."
Novakovich's first few seasons with Reading saw him move among the U18s, U23s and a couple of appearances with the first team, but the limits of playing with the U23s soon began to reveal themselves. Novakovich recalled how some clubs took the league seriously but others didn't, so he embarked on a series of loans, first with fifth-tier Cheltenham Town and then with Telstar and Fortuna Sittard. The difference, particularly in Holland, was stark. There it was the results, rather than individual development, that mattered.
"That, for me, opened my eyes," he said about the more result-driven environment he encountered. "Yeah, you played well but you have to win, you have to be ruthless, you have to be clinical. You get one chance, you have to score. I think that sharpness and that little bit of understanding of these chances, they don't come all the time. You get one or two, and that's it. You've got to do your best with them. That's what I wanted to get used to and instill in my game because it's more meaningful every game, with everything around it on the line. It's ruthless."
If his strike rate is anything to go by, Novakovich has adapted well. He added that the training in Holland is more technical, allowing him to sharpen his game even further.
"I'm still improving and still developing everything," he said. "How to take a ball with your first touch, how to maybe get in the right mindset of where you are exactly on the pitch in terms of where the defender is, where to move, where to make the runs and when and get the understanding of people. Then conserving energy but being explosive when I can."
Novakovich has adapted off the field as well. Sittard is in the southern pocket of the Netherlands between Germany and Belgium. "I was a little skeptical because it's in the south and I really enjoyed the north," he said. "I was near Amsterdam and really liked it. I was kind of catching on with the Dutch language but in the south there's a different accent, different way of living, it's calmer. But it's very beautiful, I have to say I really enjoy it."
His success at club level has now resulted in more call-ups to the U.S. team and every trip home now morphs into a mini-family reunion for Novakovich. During the September window he had a rotating cast of about five relatives at each game. His mother, a school teacher, watched against Colombia with her father. Mane, who designs heating and ventilation systems, had to stay home because he's already maxed out his vacation time going to see his son play.
"I went and visited him for like 12 days in Holland," he said. "The guys I work with, they were like, 'Are you ever going to work?' I was like, 'OK. I get it.'"
As Andrija improves his game, it's likely his father will get a lot more chances to catch his son in person.