Dusan Jakica: Engineering His Path to the Fifa Futsal World Cup
How the Mechanical Engineer from the Former Yugoslavia Came to Lead the U.S. Futsal National Team Back to the FIFA Futsal World Cup for the First Time Since 2008
U.S. Futsal National Team head coach Dusan Jakica’s LinkedIn bio is slightly different than many…most…(all?) other coaches who have held the honor of guiding their team at a FIFA World Cup.
“20+ years of professional experience in Mechanical Design Engineering specializing in Fluid Power design (Hydraulic and Pneumatic), Manufacturing, Metallurgy, Mechatronics, Robotics, Shipbuilding and Automotive Industry. Professional experience with control theory for robotics, machine design, complex FEA analysis and mathematical simulation….”
Jakica- who has a Master’s Degree in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering- is a Senior Process Manufacturing Engineer at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis.
With the support of his company, for the past two years Jakica has taken on one of his biggest engineering projects: leading the relaunch of the U.S. Futsal National Team… from scratch, amid a global pandemic.
This is the story of how the United States offered the Yugoslavian-born Jakica and his family a new life and how Dusan led the U.S. Futsal NT back to the FIFA Futsal World Cup for the first time since 2008.
“My childhood in Yugoslavia was beautiful. You didn’t have time to think about other things, you just enjoyed life,“ Jakica begins. “I started playing soccer when I was nine years old with Proleter Novi Sad, a small community club.”
Jakica was born in Novi Sad, the second biggest city in modern-day Serbia. Back then, it was a city in the country known as Yugoslavia. His mom was an economist and his dad worked in a factory on a milling machine.
Dusan’s elementary school physical education teacher was a former pro soccer player. After a class where the kids played soccer, the teacher approached Dusan and suggested he try out for the academy of Vojvodina Novi Sad, his city’s professional team. The teacher reached out to the club and Dusan’s soccer journey was underway.
“When you’re surrounded with a lot of talented kids, you must push yourself over the edge, you must give your maximum,” Jakica said of his early days with the club. “Especially there, where it is very competitive and the soccer culture is very high. Kids there don’t like to lose even in their own backyards.”
Futsal had not yet broken through in Europe, so kids dreamed of making it in the traditional 11-a-side game. Jakica remained at Vojvodina for a few years before moving to FC Novi Sad.
But soccer was not his only passion. In school he also played basketball and became a folk dancer, later even performing the Serbian national dance on a circuit throughout Europe. While those activities were fun and filled with potential, Dusan never let anything get in the way of his studies.
“My parents did not push me to one field of study or to focus on one sport,” he said. “When I was in high school, my father brought me to work with him in the factory. I could see how hard that job was. He knew that I would realize that I had two paths. It was eye-opening and I knew that I wanted to continue my path in school.”
As a teenager Dusan accepted that perhaps the outdoor game was not for him, so he went to a vocational school for electrical engineering. He quickly made a group of friends that spent time playing small-sided football- five field players and a goalkeeper, with the standard size five ball. They entered tournaments against adult teams and had success.
And while his parents shielded Dusan from any family struggles, what could not be covered was the tension in the country.
“In the 1990s, the political situation divided people and we had a stupid civil war,” Dusan remarked on the start of the Yugoslavian Wars, which would dissolve Yugoslavia into six separate countries. Novi Sad was located in what would be known as the “former Yugoslavia,” made up of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.
He was 18 and had just enrolled at the University of Novi Sad's department of mechanical engineering, and was not recruited to serve despite having completed his service.
“Some of my friends were called and some died,” he said. “It was very stressful and sad for everyone - it didn’t matter if you were from Serbia or Croatia, Slovenia or Bosnia- war is bad for all. And then your dream is broken- you’re living in one country where you had everything and everything was devastated after a couple of months.”
Futsal started entering the former Yugoslavia around the same time, a welcome development. In 1996, Dusan and his friends played in their first “futsal” tournament: four players plus a ‘keeper with a smaller, less-bouncy ball.
“Playing with reduced players meant we had more space, so we were happy,” he said. “The game was more tactical. We could combine, work on new strategy and on tactical details. From then on, I decided that’s all I wanted to play - only futsal.”
The friends created the futsal club KMF Djava and eventually qualified for the Serbian first division league. Jakica was a pro futsal player.
But a “new civil war” broke out in the late 1990s which would see Kosovo separate from Serbia and Montenegro. Unlike the previous wars, this one saw destruction throughout Novi Sad.
“These are bad memories, very painful, and not something I like bringing up,” Jakica says.
The game itself was not enough to make a living. Dusan graduated university and began working while still playing futsal with Djava, then KMF Liman and KMF Vojvodina.
He also earned his master’s degree and found his calling as a professor of robotics, mechatronics and mechanical elements at Novi Sad’s vocational schools for mechanical engineering and later, industrial engineering.
A new passion developed: teaching kids how to build robots and having them compete among other high school/university students in the Eurobot competitions.
Jakica turned his class into a team, similar to forwards, midfielders and defenders– or fixos, alas and pivos. He assigned some kids to work on the design, others on the electrical aspect and another group on the mechanical side.
“It was a period of my life that I really enjoyed and miss a lot,” he said.
The principal at the new school was also a former gym teacher and knew of Dusan’s soccer background. He asked if Jakica could launch the futsal programs for the school and the former futsal pro soon started a team just for teachers and other teams with the kids.
For Dusan, the principles he applied in engineering also applied to teaching and coaching, especially on the futsal court.
“When I try to explain to players what they need to do, how they need to move, how they need to create space- this all comes from logical perspectives. You need to use logic when you play- it’s not a pure template,” he said. “Every aspect is important- body orientation, perception- especially when you talk about space, coordination, dynamic movement.
“And you need to make decisions. This is very important for any type of soccer. You have good players who can see two options in certain situations. And at the higher level you have players in the same situation, who can see four options.”
Jakica’s teams won on and off the court. He relaunched his former club, Đavo, under the name KFM Tvrđava and at the U-19 level began coaching the university team before becoming an assistant coach with Serbia’s Futsal National Team.
But the landscape changed again. Serbia and Montenegro became independent countries and the economic situation was difficult. The Jakicas were struggling. He knew there was only one option.
“I decided we had to move anywhere in the world where my family could have a normal life,” he said.
His wife Isidora, a psychologist, has Hungarian roots. They tried unsuccessfully to acquire citizenship in Hungary. He applied for jobs in Austria and the Netherlands, and for a time worked with a ship-building company from Norway.
In 2013, an uncle living in Florida suggested that Dusan look into the Department of State’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. Each year the U.S. randomly grants thousands of visas- with U.S. permanent residency- to applicants who meet certain education or work requirements from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. The program is free.
Jakica submitted his application in November 2013. On May 1, 2014, his brother typed in the confirmation number on the State Department website with his family surrounding the computer.
“My wife read it out loud: ‘You have been randomly selected for the…,’ he recalls, choking up. “My brother started jumping and yelling. He explained to me that it meant we were approved for a green card- that we could move to the United States and have rights to work and live there.”
Word spread in the neighborhood.
Dragona Jandrich, a former classmate of Isidora’s in elementary school and of Dusan’s at university, was in town visiting from Minnesota. She offered her house near Minneapolis to the Jakicas to use while Dusan looked for work.
In December 2014, the Jakicas got their visas. Dusan, Isidora and daughters Inis and Nadja arrived at Dragona’s house in Edina, another Minneapolis suburb, on April 8, 2015. Their possessions fit into four suitcases.
“I don’t know how to express my gratitude. Without Dragana, we would not be here talking today,” he said.
Five weeks later, Phillips & Tembro offered Dusan a full-time job as a manufacturing engineer.
“It was like someone released all the built-up tension and stress from my body at one time. When I saw the offer…It was just, tears. I knew that from then on, our lives would completely flip.”
A new work colleague from Germany invited Dusan to play pick-up soccer one weekend. Dusan’s quality and experience were quickly evident. The colleague worked at Eden Prairie Soccer Club and introduced Dusan to the club’s director, Peter Reid. Shortly thereafter, Reid offered Dusan a role as a boys’ technical director and coach of a U-15 premier team.
The coaching fire was re-ignited.
As an assistant coach with Serbia, Dusan’s futsal network expanded. He had connected on social media with former U.S. Futsal National Team head coach Keith Tozer. In 2017 Tozer connected Jakica with Brain Catrine, who headed upMinnesota Futsal, a U.S. Youth Futsal organization. Catrine invited Jakica to help scout a youth futsal identification camp in town. Tozer would later invite Dusan to ID camps across the country.
Otto Orf, a former professional indoor goalkeeper who had committed much of his life to youth futsal since playing for the U.S. at the 1996 FIFA Futsal World Cup, also knew of Jakica. He approached Dusan at an ID camp in Kansas City.
“Our first meeting was very interesting,” Jakica recalls of Orf. “He knows some Serbian and Croatian words, so he started talking to me in my language. I was like, ‘Wait, who are you?’ From the first moment we were on the same page.”
The two stayed in touch and reunited at the following year’s ID camp. In-tune with the U.S. futsal landscape, Orf was aware that U.S. Soccer was planning to re-launch the Futsal NT program.
“When you recommend someone, especially to an organization like U.S. Soccer, your reputation is on the line,” Orf explained. “For me it was important that if I had an opportunity to send someone in that direction, that it was the right person.”
After being around the futsal scene that year, Jakica started his Futsal Pro License in Serbia (UEFA B, the highest available for the discipline) in December 2018, completing it over five trips to Europe in six months.
"This was my passion. I knew that with this license and the training, I could be someone in the U.S. who could share knowledge and who could lead in the future with futsal, because there were few I had met who had this license,” Dusan said.
Orf connected Jakica with U.S. Soccer’s Director of Extended National Teams, Jim Moorhouse.
“You make a judgement call on the person- on their education and the passion for the game. Dusan fit the bill on every count,” Orf continued. "The futsal program in the U.S. needed someone who could lead it in the proper direction, not only with passion but with the ability to teach. He was a teacher, and as an engineer he had an analytical mind. It was a lucky find, an easy recommendation and a great fit.”
The plan was long-term, but there was one immediate task: assemble a team to compete at the 2020 Concacaf Futsal Championship in April, and hopefully qualify for the FIFA Futsal World Cup. The USA had missed out on the last two editions. No pressure.
That first September camp took place in Orf’s hometown of Akron, Ohio, where the former Cleveland Crunch goalkeeper runs his Heart and Soul Futsal Academy and leagues at the restored Goodyear Hall. Eighteen players were called in on recommendations from contacts that the three coaches had around the country. The staff held six more identification camps across the U.S. in the coming months, observing over 600 players. They selected 18 to go to Croatia in late February 2020 for the final camp before World Cup qualifying.
And then, everything stopped.
Still in eastern Europe in March when sports started shutting down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the team was forced to bus to Munich, Germany for a flight back to the U.S. Like nearly every other event, the Concacaf Futsal Championship was postponed. So was the FIFA Futsal World Cup.
When the regional championship was rescheduled for May 2021, the player pool had been inactive for much of the year. The coaches relied on Zoom calls to meet with players and to relay training programs, as well as on limited individual visits to observe players outside team environments. They relied on year-old information in many cases to select the 14 players that would travel to Guatemala and try to qualify for the World Cup.
“I was surprised,” Jakica admitted. “We didn’t have any preparation. I didn’t know how the players would act on the court or what I could expect from some of them. As a coach, you need to know all the characteristics of your players so you can manage the game and I learned about them through five training sessions, and then game-by-game.
“I had to lean back on my previous ways of thinking through engineering and teaching and coaching. That mix gave me a different dimension for leading the National Team. From the psychological standpoint and methodology, it was not only about futsal knowledge, but we had to have many characteristics to coach this team, at this time, in this competition. It was a learning process and I’m still learning every day, just like in life.”
The U.S. beat Guatemala on penalty kicks in the semifinals before falling to Costa Rica 3-2 in the championship match to finish runner-up in Concacaf, becoming the first team to play six games in seven days in the history of the regional tournament.
Six years after arriving in the U.S., Dusan has a steady profession, coaches youth players and has led his new country’s futsal team back to the world’s stage for the first time since 2008.
“Life brings these opportunities,” he says. “If your dedication for anything you do is high, and so is your commitment, then chances will come. I give 200 percent. I don’t know how to approach anything in a different way. I think this is the reason these cards have been falling in place, and because of the support from my family - my wife is a pillar of my success.”
As fate would have it, the U.S. was drawn to Group F along with the defending World Cup champion Argentina, defending bronze medalist Iran and of course, Serbia, Dusan’s home country and a top-ten team in the world.
“I was expecting Serbia, but I wasn’t expecting a group like this,” Dusan said of the USA’s opponents. “But from my standpoint, it cannot be better for us. It’s very simple: we are playing the top teams in the world. What can we lose? What can be better for promotion of futsal than games against those giants?
“Our players will be relaxed and highly motivated. They will give maximum on the court. They will have me by their side- I will prepare them. If you talk about tactical or technical things, of course those teams are above us. But if you talk about psychological and physical preparation, all the things behind the scenes, we will be ready.”
Jeremy Klepal and Julian Escobar are the only two players on the World Cup roster who were at that initial identification camp in Akron back in Sept. 2019. They are joined by 10 teammates from the World Cup qualifying roster and four others who have made the team since.
Jakica will also have familiar faces across the court. Serbian players Davor Popovic and Dragan Tomic are former students of Jakica’s. Dusan was Popovic’s robotics teacher and coached him when he was 15-years old. Tomic was on Jakica’s university National Team at the 2014 European Championships.
“It will be a very emotional game for me,” he said of playing against Serbia, where his mother and sister still live. “But this is life. I will play to beat them. I will give the last atom of energy with my team to win that game. We will play like this is the last game of our lives. It’s the only right approach for that game. Nobody can take Serbia from my heart, nobody. But I am now in a different role. My family and my life is in the United States. This is my home.”
Jakica has faced challenges before. And he’s found ways to come out ahead.
“I'm very focused. I am excited, of course, because I never made it here as a player. But as a coach of the United States, it is a huge honor and responsibility. We will give our best and we will try to play. We know it’s a challenge for us- coaches and players- but I think we will represent the U.S. in the right light and show that futsal has a bright future in this country. And who knows, maybe we will shock the world.”