After Stellar Season, Novakovich Returns to MNT

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.

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.”