MLS draft: Union take little known Dzenan Catic


Long after expansion teams Orlando City and New York City FC made their first-ever draft picks and well-known players from traditional NCAA powerhouses were taken off the board, a relatively unknown player from an unknown university walked up to the stage at the grand ballroom of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and began to cry.

Forgive Dzenan Catic for getting emotional. The forward from Davenport University of the NAIA had just been taken with the 31st overall pick of the Major League Soccer SuperDraft by the Philadelphia Union, completing a remarkable and unlikely journey to MLS.

“They’re tears of joy,” Catic said. “I’m going to work my butt off and hopefully I can play soon and show the city of Philadelphia that I want to win. And hopefully we can bring a championship to the city.”

Catic was born in Bosnia but moved to Michigan when he was eight, eventually becoming a star high school player and a three-time state champion at East Kentwood High.

But instead of going to an American college at that point, Catic decided to test his luck overseas, signing a contract with the German club Kaiserslautern. After the 18-year-old washed out in Germany, he decided to return to the United States and give college another chance.

But because he had already signed a professional contract, he was ineligible to compete in the NCAA -- which is how he ended up at an NAIA school in Michigan.

“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I think it’s been a good life experience for me and it’s shaped me into the player I am today,” Catic said. “I’m hoping to use all of that to show what I’m made of, and hopefully everything works out in Philly and I can get started right away.”

Union head coach Jim Curtin admitted that he was “shocked” that Catic fell to them at 31 -- and he actually seems warranted in that belief.

On top of his incredible high school exploits, Catic scored a ridiculous 63 goals in two seasons at Davenport, winning the NAIA National Player of the Year and capturing a national championship.

And the 6-foot-3 Bosnian continued to show his goal-scoring process at last week’s MLS Combine against players from more well-known college programs.

“He’s battle-tested,” Curtin said. “He’s been in Europe before. This isn’t his first rodeo. To score the amount of goals, I don’t care what level it is, it’s good. I was talking with a lot of my former teammates that are now MLS coaches, and they’re all very high on him. So for him to fall to 31 is great.”

Curtin said the team considered trading into the first round to possibly snag a left back but that the price became too steep. The Union, who gave away their first-round pick in a trade with Sporting Kansas City for striker C.J. Sapong last month, were also concerned that Catic would get swooped up before their pick, so the coaches were very happy with how they made out.

“He’s a guy who brings size and is very good in front of goal,” Curtin said. “We were talking with a lot of coaches at the combine and they saw him as one of the top players – not just the top forward. He’s a kid who’s an underdog and a kid who I’m high on.”

With their next second-round pick -- the 41st overall selection -- the Union picked someone who’s more of a known commodity: University of Virginia midfielder Eric Bird. A key member of the Cavaliers for the past four seasons, Bird is fresh off leading UVA to the national championship last month.

But according to Curtin, Bird slipped down the board a little bit because he missed the MLS Combine with a groin injury.

“I think that hurt him a little bit,” Curtin said. “But he’s a guy who’s a winner and a guy who’s a two-way midfielder who we think can be a backup to Vincent [Nogueira] and can fight for a spot on the team.”

Past drafts have shown that second-round picks often have a hard time making the final roster.

But the Union are certainly optimistic about their two selections -- especially the Bosnian by way of Michigan by way of Davenport University.

And for Catic, this is simply the next step of a bizarre, difficult and ultimately rewarding journey.

“He’s a man,” Curtin said. “When you see him up on the stage, that was real emotion."

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