Vancouver Whitecaps kept it local with their first pick of the third round of the MLS SuperDraft on Tuesday, selecting Simon Fraser University Clan captain, and Coquitlam native, Jovan Blagojevic.
The ‘Caps selected the striker 54th overall, as Blagojevic became the Clan’s first ever player to be selected in a MLS draft, which can only benefit the program in years to come.
The pick will have surprised many, not least Blagojevic himself who didn’t even know that he was on the Whitecaps radar and when we spoke with him a few hours after being drafted, it still hadn’t really all sunk in yet.
“It feels very surreal,” Blagojevic told AFTN. “I honestly can’t believe that something I’ve dreamt about as a little boy is actually coming true. It’s quite an overload of emotions that are going through me.”
Having graduated in the fall after studying molecular biology biochemistry at SFU, Blagojevic’s plan was always to attend medical school, as he told us when we spoke to him back in December 2013. But as he also told us in that interview, playing professional football was always his “childhood dream” and one he was prepared to put a guaranteed career on hold to chase.
Blagojevic’s move to MLS comes after another stellar personal season with the Clan last year in NCAA Division 2.
He decided to head back to SFU for his senior year and although the Clan may have struggled overall as a team compared to their previous heroics, Blagojevic was the standout star, averaging a goal a game in his 18 appearances. Those numbers placed him seventh overall in goals in North America and he was unanimously voted the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s (GNAC) Player of the Year and also took home the West Region Player of the Year award.
“All the goals that I set out for myself at the beginning of the season, I accomplished,” Blagojevic told us. “I was very happy from a personal standpoint that I was able to achieve that. I feel that I’m continually growing as a player, so I’m excited to see how much I can now grow being in a professional atmosphere.”
Despite the numbers and the plaudits, a professional career in football was still something of a pipe dream for the 23-year-old. It was always at the back of his mind, but at the forefront was going out with the Clan with a bang. Blagojevic had no idea that the Whitecaps were following his progress and were likely to draft him until today.
“I didn’t know if they were keeping tabs on me or if they had interest in me. I was just enjoying my time with SFU and all I set out to do was to end on a good note in my senior season with SFU. That was it. I never really thought that this would be possible, that there would be a professional chance for me, an opportunity for me in the future.”
Today’s news that the ‘Caps had selected him with their first pick in the third round came as a stunning surprise to the striker. So where was he when he got the news.
“I was at home, sitting in my living room. I watched the first and second round live, just because I was interested in what was going on. I knew the third and fourth round was occurring on the internet through the live draft tracker, so I was just looking at that screen. I didn’t know anything about any team or anything that I was being chosen. I just wanted to see what happens.”
You can understand why Blagojevic thus describes the whole experience as surreal, but also as one of the best days of his life so far.
Med school is still in his long-term plans, but having a chance to make it a pro footballer was just too much of an opportunity for Blagojevic to pass up.
“Right now, my first priority is soccer. In the future I can always try and attempt medical school so I guess long, long term, it is medical school for sure but at the moment my main priority is doing whatever I can to succeed at this level.”
Blagojevic’s family have always been big supporters of Jovan throughout his career and his dad is a familiar face at games up the mountain at SFU. They’re also fully supportive of him putting his medical career on hold at the moment to try and make it as a professional footballer and were obviously delighted at Jovan being drafted today.
“They were all very happy for me. My dad was at work, my mum was upstairs and we were all talking in a group message and they were just all so happy. My mum gave me a big hug and then the next time I saw my dad, he gave me a big hug, my mum was crying. Everybody’s just super super happy and ecstatic about everything that’s occurring.
“The advice that they gave me about medical school and soccer is exactly as I said. That there’s always time for this. Right now this is my goal and my dream and I have to take every opportunity as it comes, so that’s essentially what I’m doing.”
The striker has clearly been drafted primarily to feature in the ‘Caps new USL PRO team (which will have a 50% Canadian roster requirement), but the chance is now there for him to impress and get into the first team reckoning as well.
With MLS roster spots already at a premium, Robinson has previously said that he was more looking at these third and fourth round draft picks for the USL team. But he’s also said that every player will get a chance to show they deserve a crack at the MLS squad and to be in the first team mix.
“I guess we’ll see. I’m not really sure what the future has but if he sees me that I’m more of a USL player, then that’s what I am. If he gives me the opportunity for the MLS first team, then you better believe I’m going to take it and give the best I can to show him that he was correct in choosing me for that position. Whatever it is, I’m excited either way.”
Robinson’s message to all of his young players has been clear. He’ll give them the tools and the pathway, it’s then up to each player individually to take it. Some will and some won’t. Blagojevic is determined to fall into the former category but he knows there are aspects of his game that he will need to work on and also what needs to do as a rookie to get him there.
“I just have to try and listen to his tactics and what he likes in players and what he sees in players and I just have to try and mould myself as a player to what he wants from his players. I feel that if I can do that as much as I can, hopefully I will get that opportunity.”
The Whitecaps mantra under Robinson is to give youth a chance and that talent is what matters, not age. Knowing that opportunity and those chances exist is already a key motivational tool for Blagojevic.
“That’s exciting. It’s for sure something that you want to hear. It’s very encouraging to hear that from your coach that he has faith in his young players. Hopefully I can prove that faith correct.”
For those that haven’t seen him play yet (we’ll put his highlight reel video at the end of this article), how would Jovan describe his style of play and what qualities will he be adding to the Whitecaps?
“I feel that I’m very forward with my type of play. [Depending on the situation] I have one mission in mind when I get the ball – either beat my player, going down the line and cross it or go to goal after I’ve beat my player. I like to score goals. I’m a goalscorer. If I can do that for the Whitecaps, that would be a dream come true.”
When Jovan first went to study at SFU he wasn’t even part of the soccer team, choosing to focus on his education for his first two years at university, before being convinced that he could juggle both.
“My first two years I decided not to play, then I finally talked to my parents about whether I should join or not and how it was going to affect my school, but deciding to choose to play on the team was by far a great experience for me as a player, as a person.” Blagojevic told us when we chatted just over a year ago.
“It’s definitely the best thing I’ve done for my career as a soccer player. It was the best decision for me to do, join the team. It’s the closest I’ve got to that professional environment, which is nice, and I’ve always wanted that in my life as a soccer player.”
Now Blagojevic has the opportunity to take it that one stage further and to be in an actual professional training and development environment, and he’s excited as to what that will mean for his game.
“It’s going to obviously help me grow as a player, which I’m really excited about. I’m really excited to see what the future has for me. I want to continue to get better and I want to work as hard as I can to try to get the most that I can out of this opportunity. The fact that now I’m actually living in a pro environment and not what it was before, although SFU had a similar feeling, now it’s actually happening for real. It’s exciting and I just think it will help me grow as a player.”
We’ve been watching Blagojevic play for a few years now. We’ve seen him as a winger, as an out and out striker and even as a midfielder. The Whitecaps are certainly getting a versatile player, and Jovan is comfortable in any forward and attacking role that the Caps will see fit to give him.
“I guess I prefer being a winger. I’ve grown to be most comfortable in that position. I can play other positions, but I don’t feel I’m as strong at them as I am as a winger, but whatever position Carl Robinson has in mind for me, I’ll do my best at making the most out of it and do the best that I can at it.”
The ‘Caps have still to name their new coach for the USL PRO side, although an announcement is expected later this week. One name in the mix is current SFU Clan head coach Alan Koch.
Blagojevic has spent the last four season under Koch’s tutelage and credits the South African with fine tuning his skills and making him the player he is today.
“His coaching has got me to become the goalscoring threat that I am. I’m very forward with the way I play and I’ve definitely built that attribute because of him. He’s always focussed with going forward toward the goal and that’s helped me become who I am.”
Koch has been working as a scout of the college ranks with the Whitecaps and acted as part of the ‘Caps management team at training over the summer months. He knows Blagojevic’s game inside and out and the qualities and attributes that he can bring to the squad. Koch will have had strong input in Vancouver’s decision to draft the striker. He’s delighted to see Blagojevic now get his chance in the pro game and is confident he has what it takes to succeed.
“Jovan is a competitor and he is willing to work hard and absorb information,” Koch told AFTN. “I think it is his willingness to address his limitations that has made him the player he is today. He has a winners mentality and is a natural goalscorer. He has not reached his peak yet and in the Whitecaps professional environment I think he will continue to get better and better.”
While drafting Blagojevic is great news for player and coach alike, it is also good for the soccer program itself at SFU and will only bring more added attention to what is already one of the best set ups in the country.
“I am very happy for Jovan to be our first MLS draftee,”. Koch continued. “SFU has had lots of players drafted [USL and A-League], but not into Major League Soccer. Sporting KC had a lot of interest in Chris Bargholz and Alex Kleefeldt last year, but unfortunately nothing came out of that interest. Jovan’s selection will only add to the exposure that our team continues to receive, and hopefully make it easier for the next player to get drafted in the near future.’
That’s a view also echoed by Blagojevic.
“SFU’s built me into the player that I am, so I’m very respectful of that program,” Jovan told us. “It would be great for them to be able to bring in extra talent or to have them have extra spotlight now would be exciting for them and it would be exciting for me as an alumni now.”
Born in Belgrade, Serbia in 1991 and moving to Canada two years later, Blagojevic grew up in Burnaby and Coquitlam and played his youth football with Burnaby Selects before moving on to the Coquitlam Metro-Ford Wolves U18 side.
BC boys on the Whitecaps roster are something of a rarity these days. Following a string of top players coming out of the province and the Whitecaps sides years ago, Richmond’s Caleb Clarke is the only other BC homegrown on the Caps senior roster right now.
So what does it mean to Jovan to have the chance to play for his hometown club?
“It’s amazing,” Blagojevic admitted. “To even see my name pop up on that draft and then to see it pop up for Vancouver is crazy. To be able to stay at home with my family and to be with my girlfriend as well, it’s quite something that I don’t have to leave. It definitely helps.
“Playing for Vancouver is awesome. It’s something that you dream about. It’s a fairytale coming true essentially.”
School, work and his footballing career with SFU and Metro-Ford have somewhat curtailed Jovan’s opportunities to go and see the Whitecaps play live. He’s only been able to get to a couple of ‘Caps MLS games so far but regularly watches at home when he can.
Having the chance to play for his local club, also brings with it, it’s own little bit of pressure of course. Family and friends will be there and they will all want success. Not that Jovan feels under any extra or undue pressure as a result.
“I’d feel the same way if I went anywhere. What I’m feeling, I’d feel anywhere I’d go. It’s an amazing opportunity to have. The fact that it’s local, yeah it’s pretty cool. It’s definitely nice, but it doesn’t add much extra pressure on me that I’m one of the only local boys on the team.”
Blagojevic comes to the Caps in an unusual situation for a local lad. He didn’t come through the Whitecaps’ Residency program. As someone outwith the ‘Caps system how does he view the experience of coming through the youth ranks locally but not with the Whitecaps and does he see himself as someone who can give hope to other players in that situation?
“I don’t know if exactly I feel that way but if it is that I’m giving other local kids that extra encouragement then that’s great. I love to support local soccer. That’s all I’ve had as a Coquitlam boy and a Burnaby boy. It was a nice experience playing my youth soccer and my men’s soccer with local teams here.”
There is no doubt that there is still a very hard and tough road ahead if Blagojevic is to make it in the professional game, whether with the Whitecaps or someone else. As draft picks are always told, you’ve not made it, your journey actually starts now.
Having watched him develop these past few years at SFU, there is no doubt in my mind that he has many of the skills needed to make it in the game but taking that next step up the ladder is always tricky. He’ll be given all the tools and pathways to get there though and it’s up to him now to keep developing and take them.
The first step starts this weekend. Blagojevic will now join up with the ‘Caps for the start of preseason training camp. The current players report back for their medicals on Saturday before the first on the field session on Monday, and Jovan is already pumped up and raring to go with his new team.
“As for what’s next training wise, I’m not sure yet. I was told that they’ll give me a call to let me know what the gameplan is, so I’ll be looking forward to that phone call.”
Here’s is Jovan Blagojevic’s highlight reel video: