ORLANDO, Fla. – Jon Bakero was short on options, but long on hope.
The Spanish attacker was 17, playing for his local youth club in his hometown outside Barcelona and wondering if the soccer career he dreamed of would ever even start.
The son of former FC Barcelona and Spain national team midfielder Jose Mari Bakero, the younger Bakero had no ties to any professional clubs, no serious prospects and was reaching an age where he was considering giving up the game.
Then, in March 2014, he got a lifeline from the States. A friend of his father’s had a contact who placed European players on American college soccer teams, and Wake Forest was going to be in town. The contact arranged for the Demon Deacons to scout Bakero. They were instantly impressed, and quickly offered a roster spot. He accepted, and left home for Winston-Salem that summer.
Four years and one massive leap of faith later, and Bakero is preparing to start his career in MLS. The 21-year-old forward had a sparkling career at Wake, recording 37 goals and 26 assists in 88 career NCAA matches. His senior year was truly excellent, with Bakero tallying 16 goals and 14 assists in just 23 matches en route to winning the MAC Hermann Trophy, given to the top player in college soccer.
He was one of three seniors to sign a contract with a league last week, and figures to be a first-round pick in Friday’s MLS SuperDraft in Philadelphia.
Bakero couldn’t imagine any of this when he traded Catalonia for Carolina in the summer of 2014. After studying in English at international schools while following his father’s managerial career in Mexico, Poland and Spain throughout his childhood, he felt ready for the academic adjustment of college. He had less of an idea of what college soccer would be like, however.
“I’d always been really interested in coming to the States, but I didn’t really have any expectations because I didn’t know what the level was or what college soccer really was,” he told MLSsoccer.com on Sunday. “It was no expectations, just came here to try to find my own way.”
Finding his own way meant leaving his father’s shadow. Jose Mari Bakero is a huge name in Spain; the playmaker made 500 league appearances across 17 pro seasons with Barcelona, Real Sociedad and Veracruz and played in a World Cup and two European championships with Spain.
The younger Bakero felt that any success he had in his home country could be seen as being handed to him by his famous father. In the US, no one could accuse him of not earning his keep.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m really proud of my last name and my dad is someone I look up to the most and the guy who’s probably influenced me the most in my career. But I think in Spain most times they say you do things only because of your last name, and if you go places that’s the only reason,” he said.
“I think here, everything that I’ve achieved is because of my work and my talent. And I think that was really important for me, just to run away a little bit, and I think that’s something that my dad wanted me to do, too. There was never a pressure, because my dad never wanted me to play, he was just, ‘do whatever you want. If you want to play, great; if not, great.’ But I think it was a great decision for me and I think it worked out pretty well.”
Bakero was one of the stars on Day 1 of the 2018 MLS Combine on Saturday, showing silky technical skills, making smart runs, facilitating his teammates and assisting on Team Predator’s first goal in their 2-1 win against Team Nemeziz.
He even received a bit of advice and attention from Spanish legend and New York City FC star David Villa, who is represented by the same agency as Bakero and has reached out to him several times in recent weeks to offer encouragement.
He’s a long way from the 17-year-old who thought he had no shot at a pro career four short years ago. Now Bakero is more than ready to get his MLS journey started.
“Four years ago when I came [to Wake Forest], being a professional looked almost impossible for me coming from Europe,” he said. “I’m trying to approach every day as a new opportunity, trying to enjoy it as much as I can and I think treat every day as a gift. Just being able to be here, play at a stadium like we’re doing and obviously have a professional contract already signed, I’m happy. Wherever it is, I’m going to go and work as hard as possible and hopefully the team that picks me also wants to give me an opportunity.”