RALEIGH, N.C. — The newest scoring prospect for the U.S. men’s national soccer team is a 6-foot-4 striker with a slight Serbian accent who was born and bred in Wisconsin, carries American and British passports and is under contract with a club in England but amassing goals at a crazy rate for a team in the Netherlands.
His name is Andrija Novakovich. He’s 21. And through this week and part of next, he will aim to impress the interim head coach and interim assistants caretaking a program in transition after the spectacular failure to qualify for this summer’s World Cup.
It’s his first appearance in a senior training camp, which will culminate Tuesday against Paraguay in a friendly at WakeMed Soccer Park in nearby Cary.
With the team pivoting to the 2022 World Cup cycle, the roster is loaded with young players, most notably teenagers Weston McKennie, Tim Weah and Tyler Adams. The 23-man crew also includes lesser-known figures, such as Novakovich, who did not feature prominently in the youth national teams and quietly ventured overseas four years ago.
He signed with Reading, a second-tier English club, and toiled in the development program before going on loan to a fifth-flight team. After returning to Reading, Novakovich last summer joined Telstar, a second-division Dutch side. The arrangement has yielded eye-catching results: 18 goals in 29 matches, including six in the past five appearances for a team in the hunt for promotion to the top-tier Eredivisie with the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven.
Novakovich’s production could earn him personal promotion to Reading’s first team next season — and callbacks to the national team.
“It’s nice to know,” he said, “the U.S. coaches have been looking and watching.”
U.S. soccer has developed target forwards over the years — Brian McBride and Jozy Altidore, among them — but no one with such unusual height. Tall players in the American system have typically been central defenders and goalkeepers.
Although dangerous in the air, Novakovich impresses with his footwork.
“He’s different because he’s big, lanky and long,” U.S. assistant Richie Williams said, “but he’s got some pretty good feet and pretty good technical ability.”
Despite his height, Novakovich said his father emphasized ball control.
“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.”
His family roots stretch from a Serbian town near the Hungarian and Romanian borders on his mother’s side to greater Belgrade on his father’s side. His mother was actually born in England after the family fled unrest in the former Yugoslavia decades ago. In England, his maternal grandfather played soccer for Bicester Town and Oxford United.
Both of his parents immigrated to the United States at young ages and settled in the Milwaukee area. They met in the tightknit Serbian community, which centered around St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral and, for the soccer-obsessed, the adult ethnic league known as the Majors. Serbs played Croatians, Germans faced Poles. Latin American teams blossomed.
“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.”
In a household influenced by generations of immigrants, Novakovich’s first language was Serbian. This explains the accent. “Some people say I have an accent, some say I don’t. I don’t know, man. Maybe it’s a little different.”
He grew up in the suburb of Muskego playing soccer religiously with his younger brother and two cousins. They are all now competing for college teams, in Division I (Marquette), Division II (Wisconsin-Parkside) and Division III (Milwaukee School of Engineering).
As a sophomore in high school, Novakovich committed to play at Marquette, but ultimately decided to pursue a pro path overseas. Eligible for British citizenship through his mother, he dodged the work permit issues that have dogged other Americans. With English relatives helping with personal transition, he settled in Reading, 45 miles west of London.
Though he started in the academy system, Novakovich worked himself into two first-team matches in spring 2015. He was loaned for the 2015-16 season to fifth-flight Cheltenham Town. Illness sidelined him for months and he returned to Reading. The following season, he scored eight league goals for the under-23 squad.
His agent worked with Reading — which until this week was coached by former Dutch star Jaap Stam — in arranging a loan to Telstar, a modest club located 15 miles northwest of Amsterdam.
This season, Novakovich has scored a pair of goals in five matches and, with 18 goals overall, ranks second on the league charts. On the European scales, the level of play isn’t very high, but for him, it’s a step up from Reading’s under-23s.
“It’s been challenging. I went there to get experience on a first team in a competitive atmosphere,” he said. “Fans care. We’re fighting for promotion. It’s what football is all about, With the U-23s, I didn’t really get that.”
His exploits thrust him onto the U.S. national team radar. Williams, the U.S. assistant, remembered coaching him briefly on the U.S. under-17 squad. As interim coach Dave Sarachan began considering who to call up from abroad, Williams studied Novakovich’s work on a video scouting service.
“Even though it’s second-division Holland, he’s proven he can score goals,” Williams said. “And we don’t have a lot of depth in that position.”
The other forwards in this particular camp are Bobby Wood, who has scored once in 20 Bundesliga matches for Hamburg this season; and Rubio Rubin, who didn’t pan out in Europe and is now with Mexican club Tijuana.
“Hopefully,” Novakovich said, “I can show what I can do in training and get an opportunity in the [Paraguay] game.”
And when camp closes, he will return to Telstar, where his scoring exploits have earned him star status at a 3,600-seat stadium two miles from the North Sea Canal.
What do Telstar supporters make of him?
“They know I am American and they know I am Serbian. I have heard many times: ‘the Serbian-American striker.’ They know I am from Wisconsin. Just a country boy, man.”
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