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SSFC Spotlight: Esmir Bajraktarević could be subject of dual national recruitment battle

The New England Revolution attacker found the back of the net at the recent U-23 camp.

Syndication: Arizona Republic Nicole Mullen / USA TODAY NETWORK

With the United States U-23 Men’s National Team qualifying for the upcoming Olympic Games, the competition will provide an opportunity for players to gain additional experience in a high-level tournament while also furthering their connection to the program. Esmir Bajraktarević could find himself on the roster and was included in the recent camp, scoring in the first friendly against Mexico. The 18-year-old attacker has been developing into a top talent with the New England Revolution while also attracting attention from another national team.

Born in Appleton, Wisconsin and nicknamed “Milwaukee Messi,” Bajraktarević “grew up in a Bosnian [household] where customs are cherished” and competed with SC Waukesha, the Chicago Fire, and SC Wave before joining the Revolution academy in August of 2021. The club quickly began using him with the reserves, with the attacker featuring in 11 USL League One matches and scoring in a 4-1 loss to North Carolina FC. At the start of the following season, he continued to compete with the second team, now in MLS Next Pro, and was named to the roster for the MLS Next All-Star Game.

In May of last year, the club signed him to a Homegrown contract after acquiring his rights from Minnesota United. “Esmir is an exceptional young talent who still has a great deal of development ahead of him,” New England Technical Director Curt Onalfo said. “From his first day in our residency program, Esmir has set a tremendous example with his attitude and work ethic. We look forward to seeing more players follow in his path from our Academy to the first team.”

Bajraktarević made his first-team debut a few days later, playing 67 minutes in the Round of 16 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. He made three consecutive Major League Soccer appearances in August, including starting in a 4-0 win over CF Montréal. During the offseason, Dutch side AZ Alkmaar brought him in for training, with the teenager enjoying “a perfect experience” and netting a brace for the U-18 team in a 5-1 win over Amsterdamsche.

Heading into this season as one of Top Drawer Soccer’s top-50 prospects in MLS, Bajraktarević has split time between the reserve and senior levels. He contributed eight goals and one assist in nine MLS Next appearances and was named the league’s Player of the Matchday for Matchday 9 after registering a hat trick in a 4-3 victory over Philadelphia Union II. With the first team, the teenager has played in 16 matches, mainly serving as a rotational option. His first goal came in the Round of 16 of the Leagues Cup, scoring “a glorious effort from outside [of] the box” in the 78th minute to level proceedings against Querétaro FC before the Revolution ultimately fell in a shootout.

“There’s been some frustrating moments,” Bajraktarević shared after scoring. “It’s good to get confidence and minutes and experience with (the second team) because it’s still the professional level. It’s been good for my development. The first goal, it’s a great feeling. It definitely feels like the work has paid off.”

At the international level, Bajraktarević is eligible for Bosnia and Herzegovina and received a call-up to the United States U-20 Men’s National Team at the age of 16. A few months later, he played a key role with the U-19 group that claimed the Slovenia Nation’s Cup. Last month, USMNT U-23 head coach Marko Mitrović called him into camp for friendlies against Mexico and Japan; his 45th minute goal – the second-youngest member of the group received the ball just outside of the arc and hit a hard-rolling shot to the left post – helped secure a 2-1 victory in the former fixture. However, the door to his nation of heritage remains open, with Zmajevi (The Dragons) described as being “deep in his heart;” the attacker is reportedly “soon to receive citizenship” and will be invited to join the U-21 squad.

Standing 5’9”, Bajraktarević is primarily deployed as a right winger but can also line up on the left side and at his preferred attacking midfielder with “dangerous crossing ability.” He is a confident, proactive player who is always looking to force the issue in one-on-one situations and puts in hard work on defense. Chasing a Cup praises him as “good on the ball” with “good vision” and “the ability to slip in passes to create good chances.”

Football Talent Scout rated his potential at an eight out of ten, assessing him as first-team material in a top European club. “[He] has the technique, ability, and confidence to execute the killer passes and set-up goalscoring opportunities for his teammates,” wrote Jacek Kulig. “[He is] a midfielder who sees the game differently from most, revealing creativity, cleverness at his off-the-ball movements, great vision, and passing ability orchestrating or providing dynamism to the team’s build-up process with ease and effectiveness. [He is a] player that always tries to find a vertical option in his game, so he is very capable of pushing his team forward to finishing positions... [He displays] extraordinary thinking when on the ball — he often chooses options which are unexpected for the opposition.”

Despite being one of the youngest members of the squad, Bajraktarević made an impact during the recent U-23 friendlies, building on his development with the Revolution. He appears to be on an upward trajectory, although the next step is securing regular playing time at the first-team level. With consistent performances, his future could include further inclusion with the national team and even a transfer abroad.