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SSFC Spotlight: Andrija Novakovich reaches double digits in Italy

The American striker continues scoring in Europe.

US Lecce v Frosinone Calcio - Serie B Photo by Donato Fasano/Getty Images

For the third time in his career, Andrija Novakovich has scored more than ten times in a single season. The 24-year-old striker netted a hat trick to close off the Serie B schedule with a 4-0 win over Reggina, finishing at 11 goals this year. Having spent several years on the periphery of the USMNT, he is beginning to deliver on his potential and has carved out a solid run of form in Italy. Ahead of a busy summer, his time may have come for a return to the fold and to receive a first call-up under the current regime.

Born in Muskego, Wisconsin, Novakovich spent his youth career with United Serbians, Red Star, and the well-regarded Chicago Magic youth club. Named the Gatorade Wisconsin Player of the Year, he scored 41 goals in a single high school season. After signing with Marquette University, English Championship side Reading offered him a “multi-year contract,” a process aided by a British passport through his mother.

“It was a really big decision, tough decision, but I actually have family near Reading and that really helped me out,” Novakovich told American Soccer Now. “My family and I talked about it quite a bit. It was an offer that I couldn’t really refuse. I am just following my dreams and doing what I love…. Once I got there, I enjoyed the training sessions. It was just a really, really great atmosphere for me.”

Novakovich began his time in England splitting between the U-18, U-21, and reserve sides. He made his professional debut in March of 2015, playing four minutes in a 4-1 loss to Watford. His second appearance was a month later, again as a substitute.

From there, Novakovich would remain on the outskirts of the Reading team picture, to the confusion of fans. A short loan to fifth-tier Cheltenham Town was ended without extension. After leading the U-23s in scoring, the club signed him to a two-year contract extension in July of 2017. He was then sent on loan to SC Telstar in the Eerste Divisie.

The Netherlands proved to be the right environment for Novakovich. In 38 total appearances, he scored 22 goals. The next season was another Dutch loan, this time in the top tier at Fortuna Sittard, contributing 11 goals in 32 matches across all competitions. Changing his environment provided necessary growth for a player in need of first-team minutes after years spent in the reserves.

“You have to be ruthless, you have to be clinical,” he shared with ESPN. “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.”

His return to England was brief, but featured a third Championship appearance. Clubs began to circle the towering striker, resulting in a bit of a dramatic end to the summer 2019 transfer window. PEC Zwolle was set to secure Novakovich’s signature after the agreement of personal terms, but Reading’s transfer fee demand was deemed too high. VfL Bochum was then connected to him, until Serie B side Frosinone pounced and was ultimately the winner on Deadline Day.

In his first season in Serie B, Novakovich scored five goals and added eight assists. After a reportedly “difficult” first few months, working with then-manager Alessandro Nesta helped to improve his tactical knowledge and overcome the challenging nuances of the Italian game. The Canaries finished in eighth place, barely qualifying for the promotion playoffs on goal differential. After defeating Cittadella in the preliminary round, his finish in the 15th minute of the second leg against Pordenone secured advancement to the final. Facing off with favored third-place Spezia, Frosinone drew 1-1 on aggregate, but the somewhat confusing tiebreaker in lieu of extra time determined that the higher-seeded team would earn a spot in the first division.

The first season was a resounding success for the player who finally found a club that would value his contributions. “I couldn’t be happier in Italy,” he told RadioDay in 2020. “The style of play here is very different than in England and the Netherlands, but I like it a lot. I’m learning a lot and it’s very important to me. What I’ve seen so far in Italy is that people think a lot about defense here. It’s difficult for the attackers and that’s why I came here to improve.”

Undeterred by the failed promotion campaign, Novakovich was able to increase his production in year two with 11 goals and six assists. That number would have likely been higher, if not for a bout with COVID-19 that saw him miss several matches in December and struggle to return to full fitness. For his hat trick in round 38, the first by an American in Italy, he was named player of the week for Serie B.

Novakovich finished the season as the eighth highest goal scorer and eighth highest points getter in the league, tied for the youngest among the top-15. Unfortunately, Frosinone was unable to replicate last season’s success, ending at tenth in the table and missing the promotion playoffs. According to local news outlet Ciocaria Oggi, the club’s highest priority should be to “not waste any more time” and sign an extension with the productive striker whose skills “will surely have whetted the attention of insiders.” With one year remaining on his contract, perhaps his future is elsewhere, with promotion hopefuls Venezia FC already mentioned as a potential suitor.

Any moves at the club level could impact his currently dormant national team career. Novakovich appeared for the United States at the U-17, U-18, and U-20 levels. His first senior call-up was in March of 2018, playing 13 minutes in the 1-0 friendly victory over Paraguay. He has earned three caps, the latest coming in October of 2018. The still uncommitted striker is potentially eligible to represent England and Serbia, the latter seeming slightly more possible although unlikely due to a young, talented group of attackers. With manager Gregg Berhalter appearing uninterested, the idea of a speculative one-time switch may become more appealing as his profile grows.

Not just an imposing target striker, Novakovich describes himself as a player “that likes to do things that a big guy doesn’t like to do,” such as playing with the ball at his feet and taking on defenders one-on-one. He’s been praised for his ability to connect with teammates, displaying a surprising agility in the final third. His defensive work rate is an asset, pressing opponent back lines with “effective tackles and useful interceptions.” However, his defining characteristics will always be the abilities to carve out space in the box with his body and score in bunches, while still being far too quick and skilled to be affixed with the reductive label of a poacher.

At only 24 years old, Novakovich is coming to a crossroads. Outside of one season on loan at Fortuna Sittard, his career has been spent toiling in the reserves and multiple second divisions. While Frosinone provides an environment allowing him to thrive, he will have to decide whether to stay at the club or take another stab at a higher level. For the improvement of his national team prospects, the challenge of a bigger stage might be necessary, having yet to receive a call-up during Berhalter’s tenure.