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Revs on the rise: Esmir Bajraktarevic, Noel Buck spark New England youth movement | MLSSoccer.com

Revs on the rise: Esmir Bajraktarevic, Noel Buck spark New England youth movement | MLSSoccer.com

Caleb Porter knew he was inheriting a solid squad when he interviewed for the New England Revolution’s head coaching job in December. The Revs have qualified for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in four of the past five years and largely retained the core of the group that won the Supporters’ Shield in 2021.

It wasn’t until Porter really dived into the tape, however, that the full scope of the club’s wealth of talented youngsters came into focus – starting with Noel Buck and Esmir Bajraktarevic, the 18-year-old duo who’d already worked their way into New England’s starting lineup under his predecessor Bruce Arena.

Arena, as longtime MLS watchers know, has never been one to play the kids just for its own sake.

“When I watched, went through all the games last year, I knew when [Bajraktarevic] was getting minutes, starting games, that he had to have something,” Porter told MLSsoccer.com during the Revs’ preseason camp in Florida last month. “Because for Bruce to play him – for Bruce to start him – it meant he had to have quality, and same with Noel. Noel, I think started 20 games and Esmir, I think it was four or five.

“But you know Bruce isn’t just going to start young guys unless they’re good enough.”

Dynamic duo

The opening weeks of the 2024 campaign bear this out.

Bajraktarevic and Buck have appeared in all five of the Revs’ MLS and Concacaf Champions Cup matches thus far, and started both league matches. Bajraktarevic, in fact, has been one of the team’s most dangerous attackers, scoring a goal and an assist, playing nine key passes, drawing an impressive 12 fouls and constantly menacing defenders on the dribble across both competitions.

Porter would likely note that his playing time has benefited from the long-term injury absence of Dylan Borrero, who will return from a torn ACL sometime this spring.

Meanwhile Buck, despite notching 3g/2a in 1,753 MLS minutes last season, faces stiff competition with several veterans for time in central midfield. Yet both teenagers are on a trajectory not seen from a Revs academy product since Diego Fagúndez, the club’s very first homegrown player, who made his first-team debut way back in 2011 and still holds several club and league records for youthful contributions.

“They’re going to definitely play a big role. Not because they’re young, because they’re good,” said Porter. “I don’t care that they’re young. I think a lot is made into, ‘they’re young.’ They’re good enough, and at the end of the day, there’s a ton of young guys that get signed in this league that aren’t good enough. I like that this club has signed young guys that are good enough.”

International potential

That evaluation is reinforced by the duo’s fast-rising international prospects.

The child of an English father (who also holds Welsh heritage) and an American mother, Buck earned a series of call-ups to the England Under-19 national team – one of the only foreign-based players with the squad – and should be in the mix when they conclude their 2024 UEFA European U-19 Championship qualification campaign later this month. His name has already been brought up to US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter as the prospects of a dual-national recruiting battle materialize.

As you might imagine, Papa Buck, a devoted supporter of both Chelsea FC and the Three Lions, is one extremely proud dad.

“He’s a massive fan and he brought that into my family. There’s pictures of me just learning how to walk and there’s a ball at my feet,” said Buck as he sat alongside Bajraktarevic for an exclusive interview during preseason. “He just loves every single part of it. Growing up, whenever I could, he just had me over by the field or he’d come with me. And I think what he did really well is that he didn’t force it on me. He loved it; because he loved it, I loved it. It really worked.

“And he loves me playing at this level. It’s like a dream come true for him, because he would have loved to do it but he didn’t get the chance. So, I mean, he just loves it and is super supportive.”

How central was footy to daily life in the Buck household?

“My brother [Joe] is at Georgetown and my younger brother, when we were younger, he could name every fixture for the next three weeks for the Premier League,” recalled Noel. “Like, who knows that? But he knew it. I think that kind of culture sort of helped me along, because I love what I do.”

Bajraktarevic also has a blossoming national-team outlook. The youngest member of the USMNT’s January camp, he turned heads on his senior international debut, coming off the bench in the camp’s 1-0 loss to Slovenia and nutmegging a defender with his first touch before creating several threatening looks at goal in his 20 minutes on the pitch.

“It’s such an Ez thing to do,” marveled Buck. “To nutmeg the guy on his first touch with the US men’s national team?!”

“Unbelievable individual ability”

A small, fleeting moment, perhaps, but also revealing. The Revs’ inverted winger was eager to introduce himself to a wider audience and did exactly that, bringing welcome spice to an otherwise fairly sleepy friendly match in San Antonio.

“As soon as I got in, it was, just be myself. I didn’t really want to change anything,” said Bajraktarevic. “A little nervous at first but after the first touch, first pass, it was all good.

“I was trying to show my abilities, but also trying to make a difference in the game. I did kind of want to make a mark because I feel like I wasn’t really known as much in that group of players.”

Mission accomplished.

“He’s got some unbelievable individual ability,” Berhalter said after the game. “If you think about it, in world soccer right now it’s very difficult to find one-v-one players, so it’s nice when you see that type of quality.”

Noted Porter: “You never know what a kid’s going to do in that moment, right? Some of them shrink, and he was the opposite. He jumped to that level. Some guys it takes time to jump to that level, but he immediately went there. And I think the biggest thing is because technically he’s good enough to be at the top, top level in our league, and who knows, maybe in the world. He’s just really, really technical. Very special on the ball, and clever, and creative. So the upside with him is massive.”

“I never forget where I’m from”

As Revs fans have learned to their delight, skinning opponents on the dribble is central to Esmir’s style, a product of the immersive soccer culture in his family and a manifestation of the “edge,” in Porter’s words, that makes him stand out. Driven out of their native Srebrenica by the vicious violence of the Balkan wars, his parents passed on their love of the game from an early age, and it shows.

“It means a lot to me, obviously, being raised a little differently than the other kids that I was going to school with, that I was friends with growing up,” said Bajraktarevic. “But I think it’s something that’s shaped me into who I am today, and I use it in literally everything in life, everything that my parents taught me from what they came from, so that’s definitely something that I’m forever grateful for.

“It was a pretty bad war. They lost a lot of family members, lost a couple of uncles, a grandpa,” he added. “It’s definitely something that I think about, probably almost every day. I never forget where I’m from, I never forget how I was raised. So it’s definitely something that makes me hungrier to achieve more, to make my parents proud and give them things that they never had.”

Pushing each other

It’s fair to say that he and Buck have already come a long way from the first time they met. Bajraktarevic joined Buck on the Revolution’s second team in August 2021, at that time an unheralded newcomer who’d only just arrived from Wisconsin, the first non-New Englander to join the club’s academy residential program.

Despite being barely old enough to legally drive a car, Buck had already established himself with Revs II, making his professional debut with the then-USL League One side earlier that year. Surrounded by 20-somethings, he was happy to show Bajraktarevic the ropes.

“I thought was pretty cool, it was someone else my age. Because I was 15, 16 at the time as well and everyone else was a lot older than me,” recalled Buck. “We were roomed together for a while, and I just thought it was great.

“He was really tech-y. Couldn’t pass the ball,” he deadpanned, “but he could really dribble.”

A baby-faced academy kid fast-tracked to the second team did not exactly prompt enthusiastic greetings from elder teammates who probably saw him as just another competitor for prized opportunities. So Bajraktarevic appreciated Buck’s outreach, considering he was still finding his feet in a completely new place – living with a host family, stationed far away from his Bosnian-American household in Appleton, Wisconsin for the first time.

“I remember my first Revs II training session. I think me and him were the only ones that were like, young. Everybody else was kind of older and signed to Revs II contracts,” said Bajraktarevic. “Before training, people would pass the ball, and I was like, ‘Where the hell do I go? I don’t know anybody, nothing.’ So Noel kind of welcomed me and we started passing and yeah, ever since then we’ve just been rooming.”

His rapid ascent in the ensuing two and a half years underlines why New England recruited him from nearly 1,000 miles to the west – and how they outpaced two MLS counterparts to do so, a swoop that would not have been possible without the residency option the club launched in 2019.

“I was already playing with Minnesota United and Chicago Fire,” he explained. “I was guest playing there and training with them, and then I ended up going to regionals with [Milwaukee youth club] SC Wave. I was playing, I think, two years up. And then my best friend’s dad told me, we have a trial for you at Revs.”

That would be Kevin Wasco, father of Esmir’s friend Liam and a former NCAA player at Marquette University in his younger days. As the two boys grew up together in Appleton, Wasco recognized Esmir’s talent and supported it, often paying his registration fees and helping his family manage the logistics of competitive youth play, which for a while included a 200-plus-mile round trip to Milwaukee to play for Wave. As The Blazing Musket recounted in an in-depth feature earlier this year, the Wasco family played a vital role in Esmir’s progress.

While leaving home at such a young age was daunting, New England’s offer held significant advantages over continuing that Milwaukee hypercommute, or taking on even longer drives to the nearest MLS academies.

“The two places that were near home [Minnesota and Chicago] didn’t have any residency programs. I couldn’t drive four hours every day back and forth,” said Esmir. “That’s what made the Revs stand out, because they actually had, like, a clear plan of what they’re going to do, how I was going to live there.

“That was definitely tough at 16. It’s something that I really had to think about. This is for a sport, football. So it’s definitely like, how much do I love this? How much do I want to do this? And if I go, I have to go all the way.”

So Bajraktarevic became part of a rising trend across North America: The academy transplant, youngsters who leave home during adolescence to join residential programs hundreds or even thousands of miles away in pursuit of their pro dreams, a category which includes the likes of Gianluca Busio, AZ Jackson, Chris Richards and Obed Vargas.

“They get into a kind of a concentrated professional mindset early, where it’s all about trying to be pro at a young age. I think it makes a difference,” said Porter, who worked with a similar case, Aidan Morris, during his time in Columbus. “And also there’s a pathway, so they’re watching – these guys are watching the Revs and chomping at the bit to move up the ladder and to make it. Our pro pathway in New England is excellent. It was one of the reasons I chose the club.”

Decisions ahead

While the Revolution have lately built a reputation as a selling club while still competing at the top end of the Eastern Conference, none of their recent multi-million-dollar outbound transfers like Tajon Buchanan and Djordje Petrovic have been academy products. With Bajraktarevic’s star on a rapid rise and transfer reports already linking Buck to English clubs, one or both of them could change that sooner rather than later.

And sooner or later, both teenagers will have to make their choice of international allegiance.

Buck became provisionally cap-tied to England by appearing in U-19 Euro qualification action, but could still file a one-time change of association to play for the US or Wales. Esmir has already been approached by the Bosnia and Herzegovina federation to gauge his interest in representing his ancestral homeland, and when he spoke to MLSsoccer.com, expected to receive his Bosnian passport in the coming days. That document, with the European Union work-permit opportunities it carries, will also open up his future options at club level.

“It’s a mix of both the head and the heart,” said Buck. “Are you going to play? Is it a good opportunity? But it comes down to where do you want to play? Where will you enjoy it the most?”

Bajraktarevic agreed, to a point.

“It has to be a perfect balance of both, going throughout it,” he suggests. “But I think at the end, when you make your decision or whatever you do, I think it always comes down to your heart. Because you’re not really going to love something like that with your head, so it has to be your heart.”

“Damn right,” said Buck. “Give me a fist bump for that.”

They know they must concentrate first and foremost on the daily grind in New England, where competition for playing time is stiff and the 2024 expectations are to push for trophies on multiple fronts. But with so much talent, so much glorious potential on the table, they can be forgiven for dreaming out loud a bit when asked about the future.

“I’d love to be in England,” said Buck. “Whether it happens or it doesn’t, time will tell. But my goal is to play in the Premier League. That’s my football goal. If I do get there, I’ll have other goals, but I’d love to play there.”

Here his eyes cut towards his teammate.

“I think for me, it’s playing at the highest level, like honestly, probably Europe,” said Bajraktarevic.

“Where in Europe?” Buck shot back.

“It doesn’t matter where, to be honest. I just want to keep everything open,” responded Bajraktarevic, who does admit to an affinity for Spanish soccer. “Just play at the highest level possible – Champions League, top national team, World Cups, Europe, like, whatever it is.”

“The World Cup would be sick, wouldn’t it?” mused Buck.

A few minutes later, they walked out of the hotel conference room and hopped on an elevator. Going up, of course.

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