The USMNT will look to score its first goal of 2018 as the team takes on Paraguay on Tuesday. Moving forward from the qualifying debacle last year, the Stars and Stripes have called in a youthful team of somewhat unknown players. Normally the inclusion of a player from the Dutch second division would elicit a reaction that would be more puzzlement than excitement, but 21 year-old Andrija Novakovich of Telstar is providing more of the latter.
Novakovich is from Wisconsin, however his family took a winding path to come to the US as described by Steven Goff of the Washington Post. His mother was born in the UK where her parents settled after leaving the turmoil of the former Yugoslavia. In fact, his family’s connection to Serbia is so deep that Serbian was the first language he learned growing up. In Wisconsin, he excelled as a youth player and even committed to play soccer for Marquette University. Novakovich changed his mind though and decided to challenge himself at the highest level and go to Europe. Initially he joined Reading in England, a transition that was made easier since he holds a British passport and did not require a work permit.
In a search of playing time and an environment more challenging than the Reading U-23 side, the young striker was loaned to Telstar at the beginning of the 2017 season. That’s where he has shown that he is up to the challenge he has set for himself and began scoring goals, and he hasn’t really stopped with 18 goals scored in the campaign.
It isn’t clear if his goal record means he will be successful at the international level or against stiffer competition, but it did lead to a chance to be called into the USMNT. One thing is clear from Novakovich’s story, the US still hasn’t deeply internalized the lesson learned from the Jonathan Gonzalez fiasco:
While it isn’t outside of normal practice for players to get notification that they have been selected for the national team by email, American Manager Dave Sarachan could at least drop a dime on some of these guys. Still, he took the news positively telling Goff, “It’s nice to know the U.S. coaches have been looking and watching.”
Luckily, he didn’t get a call from England, he’s not quite Harry Kane after all, who he is also eligible to play for and he will have a chance to get his first US cap on Tuesday night. Despite being a dual national and speaking with a Serbian accent, Novakovich told Goff, “I come from a Serbian background. Growing up, I am proud of my Serbian heritage. I do have a special place for Serbia in my heart. I grew up in America. I love my country. I don’t want to choose. It’s who I am.”
He is also a towering forward who can score as his 18 goals in 28 games illustrates. Typically, players that stand at 6’4” for the USMNT are expected to carry on the great American soccer tradition of being tall on set pieces. However, the forward is more than a big body - he also has terrific skills on the ball as these highlights show (Novakovich is the tall one):
First three Telstar goals (white jerseys) are Novakovich goal, assist, goal. Worth a watch. First goal is nice dribble with low finish. Assist for second is a flick-on. Third is a tap-in. -d https://t.co/5oI85KNI3J— Total Soccer Show (@TotalSoccerShow) March 20, 2018
As Novakovich told Goff, “From a young age, it was about dribbling and touching the ball and keeping it close. … Everyone looks at my size and automatically thinks I am a target man and can head the ball. Honestly, I prefer to play a little bit and have the ball at my feet, not just headers. I’m a big guy, but I can offer a little bit more.” A new skill set at forward would be a nice change of pace for the USMNT.
During the 2018 qualifying cycle, bursts of creativity came from Christian Pulisic, but a real scoring threat at striker was inconsistent between Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore. Wood of course scored a miracle goal as the US salvaged a point in qualifying to Honduras, but a player with more technical skills will be a welcome addition to the USMNT pool.