In a country known for defense, Novakovich is hitting his offensive stride in Italy
March 03, 2020
THE PAST TWO seasons, Andrija Novakovich showed he could score in Holland. First, it was for Telstar in the second tier and last season it was Fortuna Sittard in the Eredivisie. But the American forward wanted to head to Italy for the specific reason of improving himself against a country long-known for its defense.
After his season loan with Fortuna Sittard, he returned to his parent club, Reading FC. He stayed briefly in preseason but was able to secure the transfer to Frosinone, which had just been relegated to Serie B.
So far, the move has worked out. Novakovich is not scoring goals at the rate he did in Holland, but he is adamant that he is improving as a player. Even more importantly, he is playing a key role with Frosinone in its promotional effort and the club currently sits in second place – with the top two teams in Serie B automatically getting promoted.
“It is so much more different than in Holland,” Novakovich explained to ASN. “In Italy, everyone knows it's more defense-minded and is one of the reasons why I wanted to come here. I want to improve my game and I figured I can come to a country where defending is so valuable and one of the most popular ways of playing. It's very difficult for attackers. When I got the opportunity to come to Frosinone with Nesta as the coach and all the ambitions of the club, like they want to go to Serie A, I thought it was a good opportunity for me to learn and grow. And it has been exactly that.”
“And I've been enjoying and I've been happy with how I'm playing,” he added. “I would like to have scored more goals by now, but I can't say I'm upset or angry at the way I'm playing. I'm playing very well. And I'm confident in myself that they will come. And I help the team in other ways. I'll have a few assists also. We're in second at the moment so I'm very happy.”
Andrija Novakovich’s big winning goal for Frosinone today to move into 2nd place of Serie B. Nice header from the Wisconsin native pic.twitter.com/QnckAJH6Yb— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) February 29, 2020
But Novakovich is also peaking at the right time. Frosinone has six wins and a draw in its last seven games. In the club’s three most recent games, Novakovich has two goals, two assists, and a drawn penalty to help move it into second place of Serie B – with the top two teams earning promotion to Serie A.
For the Wisconsin native, the recent increase in his production has come with the development and improvement of his game. The Italian style has required him to make adjustments and add certain aspects to his game. There clearly was a learning curve but recent games have shown that Novakovich is now moving beyond that.
“I think my hold-up play has improved simply because it had to,” Novakovich explained. “The defenders are so strong here and it's so compact and you have to be able to handle the ball. But I believe I can improve more in many other areas. I like to go in behind defenders, too.”
Part of what has helped him move beyond that has been working with Frosinone manager Alessandro Nesta who was one of the best defenders of his generation and a World Cup winner in 2006 for Italy. Nesta, having previously coached in the United States and played in Canada with Montreal, is fluent in English – which has helped Novakovich.
But Nesta’s style is very demanding both physically and mentally which has forced Novkaovich to adjust.
“I'll pick his brain every once in a while, to see what he thinks,” Novakovich said of Nesta. “And it's been massive for me to hear his perspective on things and the way he wants to play. He's got a lot of ideas and he tries to instill it in the way we play. It is not always easy but you can see it's quite advanced. It’s good.”
“It's very tactical,” he said about the differences in the Italian game in general. “Right away, you could see the school of how they defend and all that. It is very embedded in their minds - especially the defenders that are Italian. It's their positioning. It's more tactical, it's more using your mind than being rigid. Of course, they're strong and there are a lot of very hard-hitting defenders. But it's also very position-minded. And it's not as easy to get space in attacking areas.
As for a return to the national team, Novakovich hasn’t heard anything from U.S. Soccer and is unsure when or if he will get another opportunity. To date, he has earned three caps with the U.S. national team which were all friendlies in 2018 when Dave Sarachan was the interim head coach.
Obviously, continued success in Italy would increase his chances as would the ongoing unsettled nature of the U.S. national team’s player pool at the center forward position. In 2019, the first-choice forwards were Jozy Altidore, Josh Sargent, and Gyasi Zardes. Heading into 2020, Altidore’s injury history is still a concern. Sargent is still young and is in a difficult season for a Werder Bremen team on pace for relegation. Zardes still faces questions about his consistency. Other options like Jesus Ferreira, Sebastian Soto, and Jeremy Ebobisse are still young and are focused on the U-23 team.
Novakovich doesn’t want to dwell too much on the topic but does mention it would be an honor to get back into the mix.
“To be honest I haven't spoken with [Gregg Berhalter] since he got appointed,” Novakovich said last week. “I haven't heard anything. That's all I could say about that. Of course, it's a goal to be involved in future World Cups and big tournaments. But the way I do it, personally, is I just take every game and training day by day. If they feel like I can help them, I know I can, I'm sure they will call me. I just don't think about it too much. That's just my outlook on it. It's always an honor to get the call. I'm always excited when the time comes around to get the call - to see if I did or not. But as a professional, you just gotta keep grinding away and doing your thing.”
For now, Novakovich is simply focused on the remainder of the Serie B season and getting Frosinone back to Serie A. Should Novakovich succeed and stay with his club into the top flight next year, it would put him in rare company as few U.S. players have played in Italy’s top flight over the past 50 years.
Alexi Lalas had a famous stint with Padova following the 1994 World Cup until he joined the New England Revolution for the inaugural MLS season in 1996. Michael Bradley played one season at Chievo Verona in 2011-2012 and then with Roma through 2014. The only other American to step foot in a Serie A match was Josh Perez who made one appearance with Fiorentina in 2016.
But to get to that point, Novakovich will have to finish the Serie B season in strong fashion – something that he expects will be difficult.
“It's been a good year so far,” Novakovich said. “I'm just working hard and I'll try my best and try to enjoy it. It's going well and we're in the promotion race. In the top half of the table there is not much difference in terms of talent. Everyone is pretty good, pretty solid. We have a lot more to do yet. But you know how it is. Anything can happen in soccer – you have to take every game one at a time.”