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SSFC Spotlight: Rokas Pukštas developing in Croatia

The young midfielder is at Hajduk Split.


Amid the excitement over the final United States Men’s National Team camp ahead of the World Cup, the U-20 squad released the roster for the 2022 Revelations Cup. The eclectic list of call-ups features fourteen players who won the recent CONCACAF U-20 Championship with several intriguing names for the future. Rokas Pukštas, currently competing with Hajduk Split in the Croatian Hrvatska nogometna liga, is one of the stronger performers at the youth level. The 18-year-old midfielder already made his professional debut and is looking to become a regular contributor.

Born in Stillwater, Oklahoma to an Olympic runner father and triple-jump champion mother, Pukštas played with Oklahoma Energy FC and the Sporting Kansas City academy while also going on trial with Manchester United. In 2020, he joined the Barça Residency Academy in Arizona – which is fast becoming a major player on the American youth soccer scene – in order to explore more European opportunities, but his brief stay was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Less than a year later, the “top talent with very high potential” moved to Hajduk Split in Croatia on an extended trial.

“As soon as there was an opportunity to go to Croatia, I left without waiting for anything,” he told “There was a lot of uncertainty due to the coronavirus, but my plan didn’t change - I wanted to go to Europe. I liked Hajduk from the very beginning, I kept in touch with them.”

Pukštas endured the typical initial adjustment struggles: dealing with an injury, learning a new language, immersing in tactics, and waiting for his papers to be cleared. However, the teenager quickly became a star at the academy level, playing almost every minute at the U-17 level. He signed a contract a few months after joining the club, working to improve his “finishing and composure in the box.”

Last season, Pukštas had a dominant year at the academy level, scoring 10 goals in 23 matches, appearing in the UEFA Youth League, and winning Croatia’s youth championship. Despite making his first appearance on the bench in January, he waited three months for his first-team debut. The midfielder started and played 82 minutes in a 2-1 win over NK Hrvatski Dragovoljac, helping Hajduk Split ultimately finish at second in the Prva liga table and earn a spot in the UEFA Europa Conference League. Fulfilling a dream of becoming a professional, his active performance featured an 86% passing accuracy.

The club extended his contract through 2025. “He has achieved significant progress in all segments of the football game,” said sporting director Mindaugas Nikoličius. “According to all the characteristics he shows on the field, but also off it, he is a quality, developing and perspective player. A modern profile of a central and attacking midfielder. He will need a certain period of adaptation to senior football, i.e., a planned introduction into the game in certain matches, but that process will probably not be long-lasting due to his playing qualities and mental characteristics.”

Pukštas had a slow start to the current season due to a lingering foot injury from international duty. Returning to the field earlier this month, he made two appearances and scored a goal for NK Solin, a second-division side with a dual-registration deal with Hajduk. Last week, the senior team gave him his first minutes, a brief substitute performance in a 2-0 win against HNK Rijeka. Local media describes him as the club’s “young hope” and a key example of the internal development strategy that pushes constant promotion up the pyramid.

At the international level, Pukštas is eligible for the United States and Lithuania, turning down a senior call-up from Rinktine despite the federation making “every effort” in his recruitment. Competing with the former program at various levels, he featured in four matches during the championship-winning run at the recent CONCACAF U-20 Championship, scoring in the opening 10-0 victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis. Manager Mikey Varas named him to the roster for the upcoming Revelations Cup featuring matches against Peru, Mexico, and Paraguay, with an eye on 2023’s U-20 World Cup in Indonesia.

Pukštas lines up as a box-to-box midfielder in Hajduk Split’s counter-pressing system, touted as “one of the [United States’] most well-rounded center midfielder prospects.” Playing in Croatia has provided him with a confident and “calmer, less frantic” style that is providing a boost with the national team. He described himself to American Soccer Now as a “fireman” who is “there defensively, aggressive with tackles, [covers] a lot of ground, [is] that leader, and [wins] midfield battles [by] controlling the tempo of the game.”

“Rokas is an athletic midfielder that plays with a fearlessness and aggressiveness that is very fun to watch,” wrote Marcus Chairez for Chasing a Cup. “He times his tackles really well and is unafraid to get stuck in… Rokas is also very good in the air… He wins a ton of balls in the air on set pieces and in the air on set pieces and it sort of catches the defense by surprise… The more glaring weakness in Pukštas’ game is his ball progression… The defensive part of his game is sound, but improved ball progression can make him a very exciting prospect.”

The Croatian league has a thriving transfer market, particularly for young players. Pukštas has put himself in a position to earn first-team minutes and develop at a club with a history of facilitating moves to higher levels. He also has the opportunity to grow and demonstrate his abilities at youth international competitions, which should allow American supporters to become more familiar with his growing profile.