SARASOTA, Fla. – Upon graduating from Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in his hometown of Cambridge, Mass. last spring, Jack Panayotou had a big decision to make. The bright young midfielder had been in the New England Revolution system since joining at the Under-13 age level, capping his Academy career by leading the Under-19 team to an MLS NEXT Cup championship and earning UnitedHealthcare Academy Player of the Year honors in the process. He knew that a professional career with his childhood club was on the horizon.
While moving directly from the Academy to the Revolution’s first team would’ve been a natural progression, Panayotou felt that he first needed to test himself in a different setting. He’d become comfortable in the Revs system, and he thought it best to experience something else before making that leap to the pros. So, he accepted an offer to play at Georgetown University for one of the top college programs in the country, moving to a new city, joining new teammates, playing for a new coach.
Learning to become comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.
“It was definitely (a decision) that I took a lot of time thinking through and trying to figure it out,” Panayotou said. “Ultimately, when I decided to leave for Georgetown, it’s because I had been in the Revs system for a while, and I was sort of at the period where I was potentially going to transition into the pros, and I wanted to make sure I could do it in another environment, for a different coach, with a new group of guys, where I would come in and be one of the younger guys in the team and see if I can be a leader, see if I can be one of the best players on the team, and play against more physical teams that want to win. Then once I felt like I did that, it was time to come back here.”
Panayotou’s one season at Georgetown was wildly successful. He tied for the team lead with seven goals in 19 appearances as a freshman, successfully achieving his objective of being one of the squad’s top players despite being one of the youngest. He saw development in his defensive intensity, learning to play in a system where he attacked as a playmaking No. 10 but defended as a winger. He learned how to focus on winning above all else, just like they do at the professional level.
So, when the Revolution approached Panayotou about signing as the club’s 10th Homegrown Player ahead of the 2023 season, he knew he was ready. The 18-year-old was announced in early January, and immediately found himself in his first preseason camp at the MLS level, training alongside – and often playing against – one of his biggest role models, 2021 MLS MVP Carles Gil.
Panayotou’s first three weeks training with the first team have, as expected, required an adjustment process, but with the Revs currently in the midst of a three-week stay in Sarasota, Fla., the teenager is soaking up new information each and every day.
“They expect a lot out of you as a player. That’s the first thing I’ve been adjusting to,” said Panayotou. “There’ll be times where I’m like, ‘Oh, I did really well.’ Especially on the ball, I thought I played really well. But there’s a couple defensive mistakes, maybe, that I had, and that doesn’t fly here. Maybe I got away with that a little bit in the Academy and maybe a little bit in college, but here, definitely not. I’ve been focusing a lot on that, so hopefully the coaching staff can trust me.
“Then on the ball stuff, just making quicker decisions, dealing with more physical guys. Ultimately, I feel like I’m definitely ready for this level, and I’m hoping I can make an impact this season.”
Veterans like Omar Gonzalez, Brandon Bye, and Henry Kessler have proven valuable resources for Panayotou during his initial adjustment phase, but fellow Homegrown teenagers Esmir Bajraktarevic and Noel Buck have perhaps been his most helpful teammates. Bajraktarevic and Buck, both 17, joined the first team last year, and while Panayotou is the oldest of the trio by about nine months, he’s found their unique perspective on his own situation to be most beneficial.
“They’re going through the same thing as I am right now,” Panayotou said. “Honestly, they have even maybe a tiny bit more experience in the sense that they’ve been with the first team two years, so it makes it that much easier and it’s great to have them around.”
Bajraktarevic and Buck both made their MLS debuts last season – Buck even bagged a first MLS goal with a beauty against New York City FC – but not before spending significant time with Revolution II, earning extended professional minutes as their development progressed. Panayotou himself made nine appearances with Revolution II last summer before departing for Georgetown and scored a pair of goals, and while he’s focused on breaking through with the first team in 2023, he knows that continued time in MLS NEXT Pro could provide a pathway for growth.
“I think the plan is for me to play 30, 35 games this year,” Panayotou said. “Hopefully every one of those is with the first team, but if not, then obviously Revs II is still a great level and a team that I want to make an impact with if I do play games with them. I’ll treat it the same as I do a first team game, so then when I do get my chance with the first team, I’ll be ready.”