PHILADELPHIA – Every day on his way home from school, before stopping at the dirt park outside his apartment building to play soccer, Dzenan Catic poked his head through the door of a neighborhood bar. Usually, a man would be hiding behind that door and, when Catic turned to walk away, the man would jump outside and call his name. But when Catic turned back, the man would be gone, hiding behind the door again.
Those hide-and-seek games with that man, his father – who ran the bar with a friend – are among the good memories Catic has from the first eight years of his life living in Jablanica, Bosnia. So were all of the soccer games in the park that left him completely cloaked in dirt and had his mother scrubbing him down for hours.
Other memories, though, are far less pleasant.
Like the sirens that pierced through the night to warn citizens to take shelter during the Bosnian War, which began a month before Catic was born in 1992. Or the buildings peppered with bullet holes. Or the abject poverty and joblessness felt throughout the country long after the war ended in 1995.
So when Catic was 8, his parents made the decision to start a new life for him and his sister on the other side of the world, moving to Grand Rapids, Mich., where family lived. Catic, now a promising 22-year-old rookie for the Philadelphia Union, has been trying to repay them ever since.
“It was very tough to have an income and support your family [in Bosnia], so my father decided to bring us to the United States, to live the American Dream,” Catic said.
He paused and smiled, before adding: “And I’m living it right now.”
The dream certainly didn’t come easy for Catic, who was signed by the Union on Monday after being selected in the second round of the 2015 SuperDraft.
In fact, the dream took a bit of a detour when, after an incredible club and scholastic soccer career at East Kentwood High School in which Catic won a national club championship, three high school state championships and was named Michigan’s Mr. Soccer and the National High School Coaches Association Player of the Year, he decided to test his luck overseas.
Catic, who scored more than 100 goals in high school, had committed to play at Michigan State before he signed with Germany’s Kaiserslautern midway through his senior year of high school. But he lasted less than two years there, making only a handful of appearances with the Kaiserslautern reserve team while batting a groin injury.
When he was released, he moved from Europe to the United States for a second time in search of better days ahead – although he “doesn’t regret one bit” his time in Germany.
“I was 18 years old at the time, and I think it was the best life experience I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s not something you can learn in school. I picked myself up and I moved across the world. I didn’t know a single person in that country. I didn’t have any family or friends, so I was on my own. I had to learn how to cook and clean and live on my own. It was pretty crazy from that perspective. And the soccer was really tough.”
Still, it left him in a difficult situation when he returned. Because he already signed a professional contract, he lost his NCAA eligibility and could not enroll at Michigan State or another prominent school. He considered other professional deals in the US but, in the end, decided that he wanted to go back to school and be near family and friends.
That’s how he ended up as a star forward at Davenport University in Grand Rapids leading the NAIA program to a national championship last fall and racking up a whopping 63 goals in two seasons.
“A lot of my buddies that I played high school [soccer] with were on that team,” he said. “It was fun. When you’re happy off the field, it translates on the field.”
Even though he was around friends and the comforts of home, Catic took a lot of the lessons he learned in Germany with him to college. According to Davenport head coach Chris Hughes, the striker never ate junk food, always went to bed early and maintained a GPA that hovered around 4.0.
On the field, he was equally intelligent.
“He’s a true student of the game,” Hughes said. “When he gets the ball, he doesn’t panic. You can see it in his body language. He doesn’t panic in front of the net. In some respects, it looks like it’s easy for him. Obviously it’s not easy, but he makes it look that way.”
Despite his monster college stats (capped by a hat trick in the national semifinals and the game-tying goal in the NAIA title game), his vaunted high school career and a standout summer with the Michigan Bucks in which he was named the PDL's MVP, Catic still felt like something of an outsider when he was invited to January’s adidas MLS Player Combine. The 6-foot-3 striker, who came out of college with one year of NAIA eligibilty remaining, said he “didn’t think a lot of people knew who I was at the time,” since he came from such a small school.
Of course, that didn’t exactly faze someone who twice had to adjust to different countries and different languages. That reflected with his play on the field, as the Bosnian native looked like a seasoned pro at the combine, scored the event's first goal (right) and noticed that “people started to talk a little bit.”
One of those people was Union head coach Jim Curtin.
“The first thing I’d say about Dzenan is that he’s a man,” Curtin said. “He’s not a boy coming from college. He’s a guy who’s been through some things, on the field and off the field. He’s experienced what it’s like to be a pro. We weren’t drafting a kid who would need two, three years just to get acclimated to what a pro environment’s like.”
Curtin said Catic was on the team’s radar even before the combine because Union U-18 coach Peter Fuller is familiar with the NAIA, having formerly coached there. But Catic’s performance at the combine certainly boosted his status, especially after Ante Razov, now a Seattle Sounders assistant and one of the best goal scorers in MLS history, came up to Curtin, a former teammate, and told him, “This kid’s the best player at the combine, hands down.”
Naturally, then, Curtin and the rest of the Philly technical staff were thrilled when Catic slipped to the second round, where the Union happily scooped him up, bringing Catic to tears (right) while addressing the Pennsylvania Convention Center crowd.
“The quality that everyone sees across the country and across MLS is he’s very good in front of goal,” Curtin said. “That’s something you can’t work on, coach or teach. You’re kind of born with it. He’s in the right place at the right time, and when he makes contact in the box, he’s as good of a finisher as I’ve seen."
Earning playing time in his rookie season still might be difficult for Catic, who will be competing up top with fellow newcomers Fernando Aristeguieta and C.J. Sapong – two of the club’s marquee offseason acquisitions – as well as returning veteran Conor Casey. But Curtin told Catic after the first week of training camp that he should not be content to simply make the team and that he should “be a guy that’s in the 18 every week and then a guy that’s in the starting lineup.”
Whether his MLS debut comes Saturday when the Union open their season against the Colorado Rapids at PPL Park (4pm ET, MLS LIVE) or down the road, there’s one thing that’s certain: It will mark yet another step in an unlikely and often-difficult journey that began in a war-torn country an ocean away.
“The challenge his family went through just to get him to the United States is a wonderful story,” Hughes said. “To see where they were and where he is now, I know his mom and dad are smiling.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.