Vuk Latinovich on being drafted: “It was shock, relief, elation because I didn’t really know what to expect. I was thinking maybe I would get drafted because I was on the draft list. But the fact that I was drafted, made me really happy. That team was willing to take a chance on me and have me come in.” (Photo courtesy of NYCFC)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Like many young players, Vuk Latinovich took a familiar route to Major League Soccer.

That included playing for local youth soccer teams, a soccer academy and competing four years in college.

A familiar route, but with one interesting twist.

The Latinovich didn’t perform for an academy team in the states but rather for one in Serbia during his final three years of high school.

Latinovich credited FK Brodarac developing him into a better player, good enough to play all four seasons in college and to be drafted by New York City FC in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. The team announced Thursday that it had signed the 23-year-old Latinovich, a center back, to an MLS contract with option years through 2024.

He traveled to Serbia to visit his grandparents and uncles on vacation every summer. He was allowed to train with FK Brodarac to stay in shape and team officials liked what they saw and they offered Latinovich an opportunity to play with the side’s academy team.

“My parents and I decided if I was going to be serious about soccer [it would help] because it did help develop my game,” he told FrontRowSoccer.com.

“It was a higher level than here and the players that I was around with were all very good players. It was a smaller team. We played against youth teams like Red Star, the biggest Serbian team. They produce a lot of professional players, so I got to play against a lot of players who are now playing in big leagues around Europe. So, just playing in those players helps a lot.”

Sometimes it is not necessarily to perform for a top team to develop your talent, but against other leading sides and players.

“I didn’t play at that high of a level while I was here in the states,” he said. “I didn’t play in academies, like the youth, MLS academies or anything like that. It was a pretty big change because the players are all good, and the coaching style is a lot different. They take it very seriously and stuff like this a different sort of mentality towards the game at a younger level than it is here I would say.”

He played well enough, scoring four goals over a five-game span, that he was called into the Serbia Under-18 national team camp. He was a central midfielder then. before adding two inches and 20 pounds of muscle and eventually was moved to defense as a 6-1 and 180 lbs. center back.

A year after Latinovich left the team to pursue a college education at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, FK Brodarac was competing in the youth Champions League.

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Latinovich comes from an athletic family. His father, Rade, played at Marquette University (team MVP in 1980) and is a member of the Wisconsin Soccer Hall of Fame. His mother, Biljana, was a professional handball player. He started to play at a young age, and he caught the soccer bug. For years, Latinovich wanted to pursue the game professionally.

“I think its maybe cheesy to say but I think it’s every kid’s dream,” he said. “Soccer players dream to play professionally, and I’ve always had the desire and always dreamt of it. I always watched a lot of games. It was always in the back of my mind. I knew that’s what I wanted to do in life. I don’t mean to sound cheesy or corny, but it is like kind of like a dream come true because I’ve wanted this for so long and I worked for it so it’s really gratifying.”

When he was chosen by NYCFC in the third round and 71st overall, Latinovich admitted he had a mixture of emotions.

“It was shock, relief, elation because I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I was thinking maybe I would get drafted because I was on the draft list. But the fact that I was drafted, made me really happy. That team was willing to take a chance on me and have me come in.”

He took it seriously, training on his own and then with his former college team to enter March training camp in acceptable shape. Latinovich wasn’t about to let this opportunity go by the wayside.

“That was an opportunity given to me and I was just really excited to get preseason so I can show that I can make the team,” he said. “Honestly, it all worked in my favor because I was given opportunities to play in games. It was more than fair from the coaching staff, and I thought I did well in those opportunities. I just feel very happy to be a part of this team and organization everyone’s been very welcoming since day one.”

The biggest transition has been the quicker speed of play, which many former college players face when reaching the pros. Latinovich has learned a lot just by watching his teammates from the sidelines.

“It helps a lot because when I sit on the side during games I’m not starting it just helps watching them,” he said. “I pick things up from like all the players, especially the experienced guys because they do the little things correctly. They always do it right every time so I just try to learn from them as much as I can by watching them and going up against them in training.”

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Latinovich impressed head coach Ronny Deila and his staff.

“I’m really proud of the way Vuk performed this preseason and he brought a high work ethic onto the pitch every day,” Deila said in a press release. “Vuk has big potential, and we want to help develop him further. He stepped in at center back for us when Maxime and Alex were unavailable and played very well. His attitude so far has been excellent and we’re really excited for him to be part of the squad.”

Latinovich’s goals are simple. Latinonich has no delusions of grandeur of starting for NYCFC at the moment. Making the bench, for example, for the team’s season opener at D.C. United, would be a sizable step.

“That would be amazing, honestly,” he said. “That’s what I’m working for and now I have to push myself to get myself onto the squad and everything but to be a part of it would be amazing.”

But he was willing to be patient, trying to break into a defense that includes veterans such as Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot and even midfielder James Sands, who has played on defense at times.

Latinovich said that he wanted “develop my game a little bit more and just work hard every day.”

“I’m not expecting the start,” he added. “I’m not really expecting everything to happen right away. I’m hoping that if or when I get an opportunity … I know I’ll do well. So, and I’ll do my best to help the team whenever or if I get a chance. Even in practices I push myself. That makes us better because then when other guys are pushing themselves around me it makes me want to push myself even more to get better.”