“It makes it joyful to play” | Bajraktarević on creative flair, family pride, and the magic of the ‘Hocus Pocus’

2_14_24 Esmir Bajraktarevic

BRADENTON, Florida – The new year may only be six weeks old, but it has already proven an unforgettable one for Esmir Bajraktarević.

The teenage sensation lived out every player’s dream in January, stepping out for his senior international debut at the age of just 18. Introduced for the final half hour of the United States Men’s National Team’s friendly against Slovenia, he thrilled fans with a dazzling cameo display of delightful flair, announcing his arrival with an audacious nutmeg – his very first touch.

An exceptionally highly-rated attacking talent, the youngster has been tipped to achieve great things, with 2024 set to be his biggest season yet. Having now broken through to the first-team setup for club and country, the playmaker is eager to clock more minutes, further driven by hopes of becoming an Olympian with the USMNT’s Under-23s at the Paris Games this summer, and fueled by the pride of sporting his family name on the back of his jersey for the first time in MLS.

Readying himself for a breakthrough campaign on the Revs’ preseason training camp in Florida, the starlet intends to collect every crumb of knowledge, experience, and advice, to propel his ascendency to the next level. With the freedom to showcase his creative gift in head coach Caleb Porter’s possession-based style, and the opportunity to learn from the likes of captain Carles Gil and Argentine winger Tomás Chancalay, Bajraktarević already feels he is thriving.

“It’s been really good so far,” he said. “This is my second preseason with the team. With the new staff, and the changes throughout my first year, it’s different, and I think we have something really good going on.

“We have a clear plan of what we want to do, how we want to play, but Caleb also wants us to express ourselves – to play like ourselves, to play to our strengths. It definitely feels good to know you have that support from the team, from the staff.

“I think I can have a good year, for sure. It fits the type of way I want to play. Obviously, we’re more of a possessive team – we like to keep the ball and play – so it’s been fitting me pretty well. I like to combine with my teammates, I like to take people on the dribble one-v-one, I like to play penetrating balls in behind, and create chances for my teammates, and for myself.

“Caleb has basically encouraged me to play with my team around me. Obviously, a big part of it is linking up with Carles, and that’s going really well so far. We work off each other pretty well, with him playing me in behind, or combining with me in between lines, and it’s been great.

“I’ve been learning a lot from him for the past two years: both mentally and technically, like the way he deals with certain pressure moments on the field – when he gets the ball, his first touch is great, his creativity is amazing, and he’s just a great player to play with.

“The main thing [from Carles] has been making me feel comfortable on the field with him, and with Tomás as well, with everybody else. Me and Tomás have been drinking matés together a lot, so we have gotten close this preseason.

“It’s just been great. I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I’ve learned so many things on the field, so many things off the field within life, just being with the Revs. I’m thankful for it.”

Remarkably skillful, Bajraktarević notably earned the nickname ‘the Milwaukee Messi’ from Revolution teammate Henry Kessler.

The 18-year-old described the feeling of elation when conjuring his creative magic – his artistic ability born at a young age – and revealed that defender Kessler is in fact often the unfortunate target of his spellbinding showpiece trick: the ‘Hocus Pocus.’

“I would say my dribbling, passing, and then my speed running with the ball are my best qualities,” Bajraktarević added.

“I’ve always been that type of player. Ever since I was little, playing for fun, I don’t know, it just makes it joyful to play. I’ve always liked players like that growing up, so it’s always been just naturally who I was.

“I’ve got this one skill – it’s called the Hocus Pocus. It’s kind of like an ‘Elastico’ behind your leg. It’s nice, but I’ve used it on Kess a lot, so I don’t think he likes it!”

Inventive, competitive, and exciting to watch, Bajraktarević earned plenty of praise from USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, who hailed the youngster’s confidence and belief in his own ability.

With a maturity beyond his years, the playmaker believes the distinction of standing as the youngest player in the Stars and Stripes squad allowed him to fully enjoy the experience of his first senior international camp, acknowledging a key lesson from his father on the importance of mentality.

“I just tried to be myself as much as possible,” he continued, “because that’s what got me this far, so there’s really no reason for me to change anything. I’m a pretty laid-back guy – I like to joke around with my teammates and have fun.

“It was both [more pressure and less pressure] as the youngest player in the camp. At first, it was more pressure, but now I’ve been through it, obviously you learn things. That’s something that I use: ‘Age doesn’t really matter at the end of the day – if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.’

“We were down [1-0] in that game [against Slovenia] as well, so I didn’t really have any walls up at that time – I just kind of went out and tried to get a result for the team.

“You have to be patient, you have to wait for your opportunity, and that’s something my dad always tells me: ‘Once you get to this level, it’s mostly mental from here.’ I have a really good support system around me – I’m very close to my family, my parents – and they know how it goes. They always make sure I’m not getting comfortable or complacent, and it’s helped me a lot.

“This year, I’ll be wearing my surname [on the back of my jersey]. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. My dad especially always wanted to see ‘Bajraktarević’ on the back, so I wanted to change it as soon as possible. I wanted to represent my family. It means so much to me, it means everything to me – it’s my family name and I just want to do good by it.

“You always have to reflect on where you want to be at the end, and I’m not anywhere near where I want to be, so I always have that motivation. It’s about having patience, and resilience is probably the main thing I’ve learned because you only fail when you give up, so that’s something I would say: ‘I keep going.’

“I think the dream became real for me when I trialed with the Revs. I remember at my first trial, the Director of the Academy told me: ‘If you come here, you’ll be with the second team’, and at 16, I was like: ‘The second team? That’s professional!’ Looking back now, that’s where I thought it was real, and I had to leave my family, of course.

“It was difficult, but it taught me a lot of things that I use now, living alone at 18. I’m honestly thankful for it because not a lot of kids go through that at 16. It’s all great experiences, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I think I’ve improved a lot in multiple things, and I’m grateful for that experience.”

With such lofty expectation and ambition, and the chance to become an Olympian very much within his grasp, Bajraktarević carries plenty of weight upon his young shoulders.

However, his mature outlook ensures he remains fully grounded and focused on the moment, refusing to look too far ahead, or become swept up by the fame and acclaim. For now, his priority is to push himself into contention for more first-team action, demonstrating his sensational skillset first in New England, and then hopefully on the world stage – perhaps lighting Paris with his pièce de resistance: the superb Hocus Pocus.

“Obviously, I’m still young, so I have a lot to prove,” he concluded. “It’s all about growing for me – whether it’s in offseason or throughout the season, and it’s been good. I wouldn’t say the transition is easy at all – there are definitely a lot of things you have to go through and learn, but it’s been good.

“I’m really looking forward to playing more minutes. It’s been something I’ve been working towards for a while, so it’s exciting. I had an important offseason – it was a little bit of everything: my body is obviously still maturing, and working with other trainers has helped me a lot physically and technically as well.

“The Olympics would be a great experience. It’s a huge world stage, and all of my favorite players growing up have played in it, so it’s definitely something to look forward to.”