For 20 of the 22 players called to Philadelphia with the Men’s National Team, the club season came to an end last weekend. Several played an instrumental role in strong finishes for their professional homes, while others started to see the light of first-team football. As they aim to carry that club momentum into play for their country, take a look at how the current MNT crop fared down the stretch abroad.
WESTON McKENNIE, SCHALKE
An injury limited Weston McKennie at times this past spring and kept him from full participation at the MNT’s March camp, but he rallied to play an important role as Schalke clinched second place in the Bundesliga. The runner-up finish, the Miners’ best since 2009-10, secured an automatic spot in the UEFA Champions League. The 19-year-old midfielder played in all but one of Schalke’s league games after the March international break and went the full 90 in three of its last four matches.
“It was a wonderful feeling at such a young age to be able to say that I’m going to play Champions League next year,” McKennie said. “To have the season that we did have, it was very emotional and very lively. To be a part of a group like that, with a lot of people not believing that we probably would finish second in the league, it was an amazing feeling.”
CHRISTIAN PULISIC, BORUSSIA DORTMUND
Borussia Dortmund has endured an up-and-down season, but the club’s fourth-place Bundesliga finish narrowly clinched Champions League qualification for the third-straight season. Just 19 years old, Pulisic started all seven of BVB’s games since March. Though Dortmund finished the season in a three-way tie for third on points with Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen, they ended up in fourth based on goal differential.
MATT MIAZGA, VITESSE
In two seasons on loan in the Dutch Eredivisie, Matt Miazga has helped lead Vitesse to unprecedented success. Last year, the 6-4 center back figured prominently in the club’s run to the KNVB Cup title, the first trophy in its 125-year history. This year, Miazga made almost every appearance he could for Vitesse, scored four goals and led the club to the Europa League playoffs with a sixth-place league finish.
Vitesse entered the four-team European play-offs with a chance to clinch international competition for the second straight season. The club handled ADO Den Haag by a 7-2 aggregate score in the semifinals before a series against fifth-place Utrecht with a Europa League qualifying spot on the line. Vitesse came away with a 5-3 aggregate triumph, and the 22-year-old defender provided the exclamation point in the final’s second leg with a 38th-minute header.
“We were fighting for something important. For me, it was great getting the game-winning goal,” Miazga said. “It was a good end to the season. We qualified for the Europa League; that’s important for the club. It was an important chapter for me at Vitesse where I was an important player for the club.”
JORGE VILLAFAÑA, SANTOS LAGUNA
As his MNT teammates arrived in Philadelphia on Sunday, Jorge Villafaña picked up some hardware. A 1-1 draw with Toluca gave Villafaña’s Santos Laguna a 3-1 aggregate victory in the Liga MX final. With the championship, he becomes just the third American ever to take home both the M.L.S. and Liga MX titles, alongside Herculez Gomez and Omar Gonzalez.
Los Guerreros qualified for the Liguilla with a fourth-place regular season finish. After a strong showing in the MNT’s 1-0 March victory against Paraguay, Villafaña played a key role for Santos down the stretch. He appeared in all three rounds of the club’s Liguilla triumph.
ANDRIJA NOVAKOVICH, TELSTAR
On loan with Telstar from English Championship side Reading, Andrija Novakovich lit up the Dutch second division with 19 goals, good for second in the Eerste Divisie. The 21-year-old’s scoring efforts led the White Lions to their best finish since 1994 and clinched a spot in the second round of the promotion playoffs.
A Novakovich goal helped Telstar take down De Graafschap 3-2 in the first leg of its playoff. Behind on aggregate in the second leg on the road, the MNT forward equalized the series with a critical goal in the 75th minute, but De Graafschap answered in the 80th to edge Telstar 6-5 and win the series.
ETHAN HORVATH, CLUB BRUGGE
After a spell outside the starting lineup, MNT goalkeeper Ethan Horvath went back into action for Club Brugge at a crucial juncture. The Blauw-Zwart finished the Belgian First Division A regular season as the top seed for the six-team championship playoff, and Horvath was drafted back into the starting XI at a crucial stage. The 21-year-old backstopped Brugge to a 3-1 win against Sporting Charleroi on May 10 before another admirable performance in a 1-1 draw at Standard Liege three days later, to clinch the Belgian league title.
ANTONEE ROBINSON, BOLTON WANDERERS
Bolton stood in danger of relegation on the final matchday in the English League Championship. The club needed a victory against Nottingham Forest coupled with help from other results to secure another season in the second division.
The 20-year-old Robinson played the full 90 minutes in a thrilling 3-2 victory. Down 2-1, Bolton scored in the 86th minute to equalize and took the lead in the 88th. Favorable results elsewhere ensured another season in the Championship after the club won promotion from League One in 2016-17.
JULIAN GREEN, GREUTHER FÜRTH
Greuther Fürth entered the final matchday of the 2.Bundesliga season with a clear task at hand: escape relegation. Fürth hadn’t fallen below the second division since 1997, and on the road against Heidenheim the club needed a result. In his first full season as a professional starter, MNT midfielder Julian Green ensured that it wouldn’t happen this year. He found the back of the net in the 54th minute with a well-placed rocket of a shot from beyond the top of the box.
“It was a tough season for the whole group there, but at the end we made it. I’m happy to score that goal,” Green said. “I could feel that my personal game was getting better and better from game to game, so it was an important season for me. I always want to win, and I give my best for the team. Nobody wants to have a relegation stand behind his name. That’s normal. At the end, I’m glad that it didn’t happen.”
In the final table, Fürth finished one spot above a trip to the promotion/relegation playoff. Tied with Erzgebirge at 40 points, it came down to goal differential. The 21-year-old’s goal secured the side its 22nd straight season in one of Germany’s top two divisions.
ERIC LICHAJ, NOTTINGHAM FOREST
First, Eric Lichaj’s screamer of a goal eliminated Arsenal from the FA Cup. Then, his brace in the match convinced his wife to let the Lichaj family get a dog. Now, the BBC has named the goal as the best of the entire FA Cup, based on fan votes.
BILL HAMID, FC MIDTJYLLAND
After a fall move from M.L.S. to the Danish Superliga, Hamid made three April appearances as the Wolves took home the league title for the first time since 2014-15.
Champions of Denmark! Learned so much this half month! Honored to be apart of this great club with such great teammates and staff! pic.twitter.com/PFynB1mau0— Bill Hamid (@BillHamid28) May 21, 2018
KEATON PARKS, BENFICA
While Keaton Parks spent most of the season with Benfica’s B team, the 20-year-old made a cameo appearance in the Aguias’ final game for the first team. The club battled to the finish for second place in the Primeira Liga, Portugal’s final Champions League qualification spot.
TIM WEAH, PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN
Paris Saint-Germain clinched its fifth Ligue 1 title in six years last month with a 7-1 victory against Monaco and completed “the double” with the Coupe de France championship following a 2-0 win over Les Herbiers earlier this month. The 18-year-old Weah made three appearances for Les Parisens this season, and earned his first start last week against Caen.
As the fourth official raised the substitution board, the tears began to fall for Zorka Novakovich. Her son Andrija stepped onto the field in the 77th minute of March’s friendly against Paraguay to pick up his first cap as a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team. A full-fledged family reunion stood on hand for the moment as 14 members of the Novakovich clan made the 16-hour drive from Wisconsin to Cary, N.C.
Two months later, the Muskego, Wisc., product has wrapped up a standout season with SC Telstar in the Netherlands and returned for his second senior team call-up. As the MNT prepares to take on Bolivia next week, his MNT invite to Philadelphia warrants another Novakovich family road trip. This time around, the journey should only last 14 hours each way.
“I think they’re looking forward to it just as much as I am,” Novakovich said as camp opened on Monday. “They’ll be in full force. It’s a massive honor. It’s a proud moment for myself and for them.”
Novakovich caught fire this season in the Dutch Erstedivisie to catch the attention of the MNT. On loan from English Championship side Reading, his 19 goals made him the second-leading scorer in the Dutch second division. The loan presented Novakovich with the first opportunity at extended first-team football in his young career. He seized every chance to impress.
“When you get opportunities, show what you can do,” Novakovich said. “To get consistent minutes, that’s exactly why I went there on loan from Reading. It was a great experience, I enjoyed every minute. It’s just about developing and getting better. It’s a massive confidence boost.”
After several years near the bottom of the Eerstedvisie table, Telstar earned its best finish since 1994, two years before Novakovich was born. He also led the White Lions to the promotion playoffs for the first time in almost ten years. While the club narrowly fell 6-5 to De Graafschap on aggregate, he scored in both of the team’s second round matches and even tallied a crucial equalizer in the second leg before the eventual series-winner came five minutes later from the opposition.
Check out all 22 of @AndrijaNovakov3 goals this season for Telstar! Novakovich is definitely one to watch out for come this fall as he returns to Reading after his year long loan & is in my opinion the future at the forward position for the USMNT!pic.twitter.com/WCtiSxyd9g— DMV Soccer (@DMVsoccer96) 15 de mayo de 2018
Raised in a tight-knit Serbian community outside Milwaukee, Novakovich passed up a scholarship to local Marquette University to sign with Reading in 2014. After a spell in the club’s youth set-up, he led the U-23 reserve team in scoring last season to prove himself ready for first team football. While the environment changed this season, Novakovich’s knack for finding the back of the net has endured.
“He’s coming off the back end of a very successful campaign,” said MNT head coach Dave Sarachan. “We had a good opportunity to get to know Andrija in our last preparation for Paraguay. He showed that he belonged in the group during that camp and in that match. This is just another opportunity to continue to see him and have a guy that has shown to be a capable goal scorer and effective as a striker. He comes in with a lot of confidence.”
Novakovich made sporadic appearances for several Youth National Team squads, but March provided his first-ever senior team call-up. A towering presence at the forward position, his six-four frame has turned heads at every level. In Philadelphia, Novakovich has been reunited with several former YNT teammates like Lynden Gooch, Erik Palmer-Brown and Rubio Rubin. At 21 years old, he checks in a dash below the average roster age and stands tall as part of the MNT’s next generation.
In Novakovich’s brief appearance against Paraguay, he nearly picked up his first international goal alongside his first cap. His play in North Carolina made enough of an impression to earn a return camp invite as one of 11 holdovers from March. Only two out-and-out forwards have made the trip to Philadelphia, a vote of confidence for Novakovich.
“It’s a good feeling,” Novakovich said. “You just want more, you want to keep going. It’s an honor to come here and try to showcase as much as possible. You’re just trying to be ready as soon as you’re called upon.”
Fourteen family members watched Novakovich earn his first cap in Cary. His nose for the net defined his season in the Netherlands. A first international goal, in front of another packed personal supporters’ section, would put an exclamation point on an incredible season.
“It’s a different step playing at an international stage,” Novakovich said. ”It’s a big difference from club level. I’m just going to try to do my best at whatever I do, work hard and show the coaches what I can do.”Read more