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SSFC Spotlight: Benji Kikanović producing for San Jose Earthquakes

The dual-national attacker had a great 2022 season in Major League Soccer.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at San Jose Earthquakes Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

With the start of the 2023 Major League Soccer season on the horizon, potential national team players will emerge over the coming months. While some observers may look to the talents performing for the competition’s top clubs, struggling sides can sometimes provide the silver lining of development opportunities. Benjamin “Benji” Kikanović has been quietly coming into his own with the San Jose Earthquakes. The 23-year-old dual-national attacker displays improving production and attracted European transfer interest during the recent winter window.

Born in San Jose, California, Kikanović initially avoided organized soccer, instead training one-on-one with his father before eventually competing with the Placer United youth club and Antelope High School, scoring 24 goals in his senior year. He matriculated to California State University, Sacramento, playing two seasons for the Hornets. As a freshman, the conference named him to the Big West All-Freshman Team and Big West Second Team, while also awarding him Big West Freshman of the Year. His sophomore year saw a decrease in production but still garnered Big West Second Team honors. During the summer break, the forward suited up for Sacramento Gold in the National Premier Soccer League.

Leaving college early, Kikanović signed with Reno 1868 of the USL Championship, with the club describing him as having “a lot of potential.” In his debut professional season, he contributed two goals and one assist in 13 matches, helping reach the quarterfinals of the playoffs. However, the club folded due to the financial issues deriving from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kikanović stayed local, moving a step up the American soccer pyramid and signing a contract with the San Jose Earthquakes. “Benji has been on our radar for several years and we’re happy he’ll be joining the first team,” said then-general manager Jesse Fioranelli. “He is a player that we thought very highly of in college and we were impressed by his transition to the professional game last year. We’ll create an individualized program for him and believe in his future in MLS.”

In 2021, Kikanović rotated in and out of the lineup before landing a starting role in September. He ended the season with four goals and one assist, including finishes in consecutive weeks against Austin FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. His athleticism was on display across 17 appearances, being measured among the club’s fastest players.

Despite heading into the past season feeling “super confident,” Kikanović had a slow start, struggling to find the back of the net in limited minutes. However, his fortunes changed in July with a brace in a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire. He went on a relative tear, ending the year with six goals and five assists as the Earthquakes closed a dismal 2022 at the bottom of the Western Conference table. The attacker was named the club’s Young Player of the Year, cited for his “new career highs in appearances (28), starts (15), minutes (1,287), goals, and assists.”

Across multiple transfer windows, Kikanović was linked with a move to AEK Athens in the Greek Superliga, managed by Matías Almeyda, who was most recently in charge of the Earthquakes. Énosis (Union) is said to have made a $1,000,000 offer over the summer that was allegedly increased to “around $2,000,000” during the offseason. Despite stories and rumors of negotiations, the player ultimately stayed in MLS with San Jose reportedly “in no rush to make a move” and asking too steep a price.

He had previously expressed a desire to go abroad, but that is tabled for now. “Obviously, it’s a good thing for me,” Kikanović said on The Soccer Hour. “At the same time, it’s kind of annoying in a way because it’s like, what the hell is going on? Like you never know. Soccer, it’s a business, but you know you could leave or you could stay, but for me right now, I’m here. So, I’m happy to be here [in San Jose].”

At the international level, Kikanović is eligible to represent the United States and Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has yet to make an appearance for either program, and, while open to both, Zmajevi (The Dragons) remain the priority. Unfortunately, his current age of 23 years old renders him ineligible for the upcoming Olympic Games, which would have been an opportunity to enter into the fold.

“There is always something different in the heart,” he told Voice of America. “It’s there: either you will or you won’t. Regarding that, I would like to play for Bosnia and Herzegovina. But I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. If they call me - they call me, if they don’t call me - they don’t.”

Kikanović is a lanky 6’1” attacker who lines up at centre-forward and left winger, utilizing a quick first step that allows him to outpace opponents and thrive on the counter-attack. He is a hard worker on defense, frequently bringing down opposing dribblers and winning a significant portion of his aerial duels. Coaches have praised his “excellent speed, very good technical ability,” and read of the game, as well as possessing “a strong desire to always improve.” His movement tends to drift inside, driving toward the goal with runs that disrupt the defensive structure or floating into the back post to head home a cross.

While Kikanović was not included on the roster for January camp, the attacker is an intriguing prospect worthy of observation, although his stated priority is Bosnia. He will likely be heading abroad in the future and has the potential to thrive in a foreign league. If his rate of production increases, then a USMNT call-up could be within the realm of possibility, as combined double-digit goals and assists are hard to ignore.