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Originally from Belgrade, Serbia, Vuk Popovic (pronounced Vook Pop-o-vitch) is a tall, strong center-back. He is a reliable and smart defender who can cover the best of forwards and possesses skill to contribute in an offensive attack. Like many young Europeans, Popovic had to make a decision about his playing career in his teenage years. It was either continue soccer in Serbia or pursue an education. Instead, Popovic decided to combine the two by playing division I soccer at Oakland University in Michigan while at the same time receive a college education.

Born in 1988, standing at 6′ 3″ (194 cm), Popovic’s story provides hope and guidance to the many Europeans facing a similar situation. He also discusses many details regarding college soccer that are often overlooked and unknown to many young athletes pursuing a similar path.

Whether your goal is to play division I soccer, receive a scholarship or move across the world to pursue a dream, Popovic’s story is inspiring for all.

Goalden interviews Popovic in the first of a two part series.

Goalden: how did you make the transition from high school soccer in Serbia to division I soccer in Michigan?

Popovic: Playing football in Europe is much different than it is in Michigan and U.S. in general. All the kids play for clubs from the day they start kicking the ball. The system is very professional from day one and all the clubs have their youth academies where they make selections and work on perfecting the kids. I joined the FC Obilic academy when I was 10 years old and stayed there for seven years. Later on I moved to FK Rad where I played for two years before I arrived at Oakland University.

In those professional environments it is hard to manage school, soccer and private life, so all the kids have to be very dedicated to soccer and put everything else on the side. I always wanted to get a good education, but at the same time I wanted to keep on practicing and improving my soccer skills so that I could continue playing at a high level after I graduate from college. My father and some of my friends suggested I apply for a college in the U.S. which I did not know anything about.

Today, after four years at Oakland University I am happy and proud to say that I have achieved one of my goals – education. Now, I can continue pursuing my next goal which is playing at the next level.

Goalden: With all the videos coaches receive from players looking to be recruited what do you think made your video (stats/height/weight) stand out from the rest?

Popovic: I think that most of the coaches, when they recruit an international player, look for something that will make the difference, something that others don’t have. In my case I would say that all the mentioned characteristics attracted coaches at Oakland. Height is very important in Division I college soccer, and I am a tall player (6’3”/200lb).

In Serbia I played for a club that was one of the best in the country for my age and we won a lot of trophies which is also important for coaches when they look at the video. Stats have to be good, playing time, goals scored, goals against and assists are also important. One area the coaches at Oakland were attracted to most was my ability to use my foot skills from the back line. I was always confident on the ball and liked playing and passing the ball from the back line, which is contrary to other college defenders.

Goalden: how should players know which division in college they should play in (D1, D2, D3, NAIA)?

Popovic: It is never easy for a kid 16 or 17 years old to know where he/she should go and play. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t even know at that age what college soccer was. I assume that young players should give their best every day in training and in all the games. If they take soccer seriously, are dedicated and make the sacrifices, then they will succeed at a high level. The difference between divisions in soccer is almost unnoticeable. For instance, NAIA division soccer is potentially stronger than Division I in terms of quality, but the only difference maker is some different rules that apply for that league. For instance, NAIA can have some former professional players who are now in college, while Division I is only amateurs players who have never signed any contracts.

Another important fact is understanding the role of academics. Players need to be good students in order to attend a Division I school. Other divisions have lower standards in terms of grades. Dedication in school and on the field will bring players into the best colleges!

Goalden: who and what has been your biggest inspiration in pursuing your soccer career?

Popovic: Since I was a little kid, I always liked sports and was the best at soccer. I was fortunate to be surrounded with great athletes all my life as my father was a professional water polo player. I would always go to all the water polo games with my father and what I loved the most was the feeling of being part of the team; team bonding, chemistry, and atmosphere. Another inspiration was my cousin who played professional soccer in Montenegro. I learned a lot from his experiences, and watching him go through good and bad moments in soccer made my way much easier.

Throughout my soccer career I was lucky to learn from some great coaches, people who had great careers, players like Sinisa Mihajlovic and Dejan Savicevic. They have certainly made a huge impact on my soccer career.

Even though my father played a different sport, I give him all the credit for inspiring me to become an athlete. I also give credit to my mother who made me learn how important school is. My parents never pushed me into anything and always let me decide on my own what I actually wanted. But, watching them being dedicated to what they love, being responsible, and passionate made me become who I am today.

Take a look a some of Vuk’s highlights:

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