Belgrade Badger: 2014 commit Nikola Atlija brings Red Star pedigree to U of Wisconsin
The path to NCAA Division I soccer can be a varied one, and that is especially true of Nikola Atlija, a commit to the University of Wisconsin for the incoming fall class.
Atlija, a forward who plays for FC Wisconsin Nationals in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, has spent several summers training with various age group sides at history-rich Serbian club Red Star Belgrade.
Now, as he looks ahead to what he hopes will be a successful career with the highly-regarded Badgers, the co-director of coaching at FC Wisconsin and USSDA director Ben Shepherd believes this experience has helped shape him into the player he has become.
“His family are from that area, so he goes back in the summer and trains with them [Red Star],” Shepherd told SoccerWire.com. “His grandfather is still connected over there, so him and his younger brother Todor, who’s on our U-16 team, both go there over the summer and train with them for a couple of weeks before then coming back and playing the USSDA season.
“It’s helped him, especially with the speed of play and playing with other types of players. It probably took him a little while to adjust coming back and getting involved with the academy team as he missed a fair portion of preseason whilst he was over there this year. The speed of play has helped his competitiveness and I’m sure it helped him develop.”
Atlija joins a Badgers team that reached the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament, where they lost 4-0 to eventual national champions Notre Dame. The Big Ten side had a 14-5-2 record, and lost 2-1 to Northwestern in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
Shepherd believes that when his striker makes the move to Madison, Wis., in the fall, he brings a number of positive attributes both on and off the field that have helped him be a key player with FC Wisconsin.
“First off, he’s got a very good left foot,” Shepherd said. “In the fall season we played either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 and he played primarily on the left-hand side and then towards the end of the fall season, he played up front as a central guy and did very well in both roles.
“Looking at the spring right now, he’s probably going to play up top and centrally, that’s where he’s really come into his own now and found his niche. He’s got good movement, is quite an intelligent player, pulls off the shoulder of center backs and he’s able to find little pockets of space and can make the most of the chances that come his way.
“He’s a committed young man and also a good student. He never misses a training session, he’s always there early, has a very good work rate, and he’s one of the fittest guys on the squad as well. He’s an ideal guy to bring into the college setting, as he doesn’t have any baggage and he’ll be willing to work hard to make the most of the opportunity presented to him.”
It promises to be quite a transition for Atlija to Division I soccer from FC Wisconsin, whose U-17/18 side sit in 10th place in the USSDA Central Conference Mid-America Division, but have games in hand on those around them.
However, despite what will be a challenging environment for his young star, Shepherd believes Atlija should take to college soccer well and cope with the trials that lay ahead.
“For any player, no matter how good they are coming out of the academy program, there’s always going to be a transition when you first get there,” Shepherd added. “You can educate players and tell them how difficult the college game is, but until they actually get there and experience it for themselves, it’s a little bit of a shock to them.
“I think the speed of play and the physicality of the college game, especially with the way the college game is right now in terms of the directness of play will be the biggest differences for him. There’s a big adjustment period there. In every aspect, it’s another step up. It takes any player time to adjust, but he’s got the quality that given time, I think he will adjust to it and be successful at that level.
“If he’s given the opportunity and given the time, I think he can be successful. Will he go in there and dominate as a freshman? I think it’s difficult for any young player to do that. Over the course of his four years though, I think he’ll have the opportunity to be successful. Credit to him though, as he’s been a loyal servant to this club, and I think he’ll put the work in to be successful.”