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MLS SuperDraft

An NAIA Diamond in the Rough at MLS SuperDraft

Can Davenport University's Dzenan Catic follow the path set by FC Dallas' Tesho Akindele and impress Major League Soccer scouts enough to land a coveted draft pick? And who is this guy, anyway?
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
January 09, 2015
10:00 AM
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—As the entourages from all 20 Major League Soccer teams yesterday rolled into the ocean-side hotel that’s serving as the headquarters for the league’s annual college scouting combine, a consensus began to emerge about one of the players they most want to observe in action in the games that begin this afternoon.

“The NAIA kid, he’s a bit of a mystery,” said Seattle Sounders associate head coach Brian Schmetzer. “A lot of these kids, the ones that go to the bigger schools, we’ve seen them before, either in person or because now so many of their games are on T.V. or the Internet. So even though we still want to see them play against each other, we already know some about him. But this guy is more of a mystery so I think there will be a lot of eyes on him.”

The “NAIA kid” in question is Dzenan Catic, a naturalized United States citizen from Bosnia. In a draft where forwards who can actually score are at a premium, Catic stands out because of his prolific productivity. In two seasons at Davenport University in his home state of Michigan he scored 63 goals and had 14 assists just 47 games. Last fall Catic tallied 39 goals in 25 games—the most goals scored in the NAIA since 2004—leading Davenport to an NAIA national title. He was named the division’s national player of the year. (The NAIA is an association of smaller colleges independent from the NCAA.)

“Will it translate?,” asked Revolution general manager Michael Burns. “You look at the numbers, that gets your attention. But lots of guys from that level have scored before and then not been able to do it at our level. That's what we're here to see.”

One reason Catic is drawing more attention than previous small-school forwards with big numbers is because his pedigree is as atypical for an NAIA player as the path that brought him to combine. A wiry six-foot-three, Catic moved to the United States from Bosnia when he was eight and developed into a dominant youth player, becoming Michigan’s Mr. Soccer in the fall of 2010, his senior year of high school. The National High School Coaches of America named him the national player of the year.

He considered attending Michigan State but instead signed with German club Kaiserslautern where injuries derailed his career. He returned home in 2012. He had been a pro and thus ineligible for NCAA soccer, but the NAIA has looser rules and Catic was allowed to play after sitting out one season. “It was definitely a different path to get here,” Catic told ASN in the hotel lobby. “But there’s more than one way to do things. If I had gone straight to Michigan State and played four seasons, this is exactly where I’d be. I just went a different route to get here.”

His presence in Fort Lauderdale is something of a surprise as MLS doesn’t traditionally allow underclassmen into the draft who haven’t signed Generation Adidas deals. League officials who run the combine weren’t familiar with him and Catic wasn’t on the original list of invites. “We had to make a case to the league to get him here,” said Catic’s agent, Niki Budalic. “Fortunately, there were some clubs that had scouted him and we got them to all the league and push for him to be here.”

Budalic is mum about which clubs stepped up on his client’s behalf, but several people here said the Columbus Crew, who traditionally draft very heavily from the Midwest, are interested.

In some ways, Catic draws some similarities to F.C. Dallas Tesho Akindele, who put up monster numbers at a small college but had to show he could hang with the players from the bigger schools at last year's combine. Akindele, who played at Division II Colorado School of Mines, parlayed a strong showing here to vault into the top 10 of last year’s draft then went on to be named MLS Rookie of the Year.

This is not lost on Catic. “He showed a person from a small school an do it,” Catic said. “It’s motivating for the rest of us.”

One item on his resume that helped get Catic here is his performance last summer in the amateur Premier Development League. Catic averaged a goal a game and led the Michigan Bucks to a PDL national title and was named that league’s MVP.

“That was big for me because it gave me a chance to play against D-I players and show I could score against them as well and gave me a lot of confidence.”

Confidence is something Catic doesn’t lack. He’s fairly soft-spoken but he talks about goal-scoring with a matter-of-factness as if he was discussing what he might choose for breakfast. “It’s just something I’ve always known how to do,” he said. “I think I see the game a little differently and I anticipate and that just puts me in the right situations and then I don’t panic and I’m able to finish.

About playing before scouts with his future on the line, Catic said "I'm not nervous at all. More like excited to get out there and show what I can do.”

As a small child played he played with a youth club of a pro team in his birth-town of Jablanica. “I was actually a little small for my age, but we played every day in the park and then I’d play at home and was driving my parents crazy,” said Catic, whose accentlesss English offers no hint of his background. “But because I was small my dad had to beg them to take me. The coaches felt sorry for my dad because he said I was trashing their house.”

Besides Catic, the top forwards candidates in this draft are Generation Adidas strikers Cyle Larin (who is with the Canadian U-20 national team) of Connecticut and Romario Williams of Central Florida, along with Pac-12 player of the year Khiry Shelton of Oregon State and Andy Craven, a forward from North Carolina who is one of three finalists for the Hermann Award, given the to the top player in college soccer.

“There aren’t a lot of forwards in this draft,” said Budalic. “So he if shows well here, he’s got a chance to go pretty high.”

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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