The Story of Esmir Bajraktarevic, A Rising Star In American Soccer
A son of refugees, Esmir Bajraktarevic traded Wisconsin for Massachusetts to pursue his dream of being a professional soccer player.
Many American soccer fans were introduced to Esmir Bajraktarevic during the U.S. Men’s National Team’s game against Slovenia on Jan. 20.
Coming in as a substitute in the 71st minute, the 18-year-old used his very first touch to meg an opponent. From there, he was a dynamic presence on the right wing, combining with teammates, taking on players, and looking for openings to get in the box.
Those familiar with Esmir weren’t surprised to see this type of assertive play from the youngest player in camp. In fact, New England Revolution defender Henry Kessler calls him the “Milwaukee Messi.”
Those who truly know Esmir understand that he’s experienced a lot, which has taught him to take nothing for granted and to cherish every moment.
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Esmir’s father, Elmir, and mother, Emina, grew up in Bosnia. War descended on their country in 1992, a reality that became impossible to ignore once tanks arrived.
Elmir and Emina spent two years on the run, ultimately landing in Switzerland. In 2001, they came to the United States as part of a refugee program.
Four years later, Esmir, the youngest of three, was born in Wisconsin. While he has spent his entire life in the United States, he has always felt a connection to Bosnia.
“[The war] was pretty bad,” Esmir told The Blazing Musket. “My parents lost a good amount of family members. It's very tragic. It is something that I'll never forget, obviously. Srebrenica is something that I'll never forget. It's a part of me and who I am. It's in my blood. It's something that is a big part of me.”
Esmir’s parents worked hard to provide their children with everything they wanted. His father and mother regularly worked 12-hour shifts, which sometimes prevented them from seeing each other since one had to be with the children while the other was at work.
“[The war] was pretty bad. My parents lost a good amount of family members. It's very tragic. It is something that I'll never forget.” -Esmir Bajraktarevic
Life wasn’t always easy in the Bajraktarevic household, but these experiences helped shape Esmir into the person that he is today.
“It was difficult starting a new life and everything, so we didn't have a lot of money growing up,” Esmir said. “It was obviously hard at first, just seeing them struggle and everything. I'm so thankful for everything they've given me, especially from what they came from.
“Honestly, it really motivates me every single day because I've seen what they came from. It kind of taught me to never back down from adversity because I know things can always be worse and also to always be grateful for everything that I have.”
One thing that was a constant for the family was soccer.
Esmir’s father grew up playing daily while his mother sometimes participated. Elmir continued to play in Switzerland and he still finds field time today at 50 years old.
Esmir describes it best when he says that his father is “still ballin’ every day.”
Naturally, the Bajraktarevic children inherited the soccer gene. Esmir’s sister, Elma, currently coaches with the Marquette United Soccer Club. His brother, Osman, had a brief playing career, including a stint with Green Bay Voyageurs FC.
“It’s really been all I’ve ever known since I could walk,” Esmir said. “Soccer is big in my family.”
But growing up in Appleton, WI meant that there wasn’t easy access to academy soccer.
Minnesota United and Chicago Fire were the closest MLS teams, but they were three or four hours away. Esmir did make the drive to Chicago on a couple of occasions and even served as a guest player for the academy team.
“When I was younger, I used to get pretty frustrated just because I would see these kids playing in the academy, and I'd always think I should be there.” -Esmir Bajraktarevic
The arrangement didn’t work because there was no way for Esmir to live in Chicago and it was impossible to make the three-hour round-trip drive every day after school.
“When I was younger, I used to get pretty frustrated just because I would see these kids playing in the academy, and I'd always think I should be there,” Esmir said. “So it kind of really motivated me to go even harder in the position that I was in.”
Esmir played in local rec leagues and joined any pickup game he could. He ultimately met a lifelong friend, Liam Wasco, who helped him along his soccer journey.
“Eventually I played against one of these kids who's now my best friend,” Esmir said. “He was playing on two teams. He was also playing on a club team. So his dad was like, ‘Hey–talking to my dad–I'll support him.’”
Esmir said that Liam’s parents, Kevin and Mitzy, “basically paid for me throughout my whole club career.” It’s something that he deeply appreciates.
“It's amazing,” Esmir said. “Honestly, to this day, I still don't know why they did that. It's honestly just a blessing to have them in my life. To this day, I still hear from them every single day. [Liam is] still my best friend. I still talk to the entire family. They're almost like a second family to me. I'm really grateful for everything they've given me.”
Kevin sponsored athletes in the past and wanted to do the same for Esmir.
At the request of Elmir, Kevin became a guardian for Esmir, helping the family understand and sign soccer documents. The Bajraktarevics repaid this kindness with traditional Bosnian meals, delicious coffee, and rich soccer conversations. These gatherings were often capped with a game of soccer tennis where the children challenged the adults.
Kevin didn’t think twice about supporting Esmir. As a player himself–he played at Marquette University–he’d seen individuals fall through the cracks and didn’t want that to happen to Esmir.
“The kid is so good and he would get lost,” Kevin said. “He’s such a great kid too. We just included him as one of our sons. I didn’t think it was anything different than what you would do to provide for your own kids. If we were going to get shoes for our kids then we’d get shoes for Esmir. We consider the Bajraktarevics our family and they consider us the same. They’re just great people.”
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Esmir was a regular on the soccer fields in the Appleton area. Kevin remembers that Esmir and Liam “took their lumps” against the older players during their early playing days, but were soon able to hold their own.
The duo went on to join SC Wave in Milwaukee.
“I remember their last game in Appleton, Esmir and Liam were playing against the team they were going to go to,” Kevin said. “They beat that team 7-2 with Esmir and Liam scoring all of the goals, each of them assisting the other.
“I remember the coach being puzzled, asking, ‘Why are you going to join this team if we killed them?’ It was about more opportunities, right?”
With the help of the Wascos and his parents, Esmir made the 1.5-hour trip to Milwaukee three times a week with Liam. It was a trip he never regretted. Esmir said it provided “great memories'' that he will “never forget.”
As he got older, Esmir continued to garner attention, leading to conversations with academies and clubs. A trial with the New England Revolution changed his life.
The club, including Academy Director Rob Beccera, laid out a plan for Esmir. The 16-year-old would become the first player outside of New England to live in one of the club’s residency homes. One year later, he’d be a Revolution Homegrown, paving the way for first-team minutes.
It was an intriguing opportunity, but also a scary one since Esmir would only see his family once or twice a year.
“I kind of had to question how bad I wanted to do this,” Esmir said. “My dad told me it would be a waste of my talent, of my potential, just to stay home because I was scared of missing my family and everything.”
“It was something that I learned at a really young age, to make sacrifices. I'm really thankful for it because I learned so much from it, from this whole experience. So, going at 16, to New England, it was good.”
In 2021, which was his first year in Foxboro, Esmir played for the Academy as well as Revolution II. He made 11 appearances (five starts) with the second team, collecting one goal.
In 2022, he had two assists in 17 games (14 starts) with the Revs II. On May 23, he signed as the ninth Homegrown Player in Revolution history.
Two days later, Esmir made his first team debut, playing 67 minutes in a U.S. Open Cup game against NYCFC. He made his first league appearance on Aug. 17 and his first league start on Aug. 20.
There are times when Esmir thinks about the life he would’ve had if he stayed in Wisconsin. He would’ve attended a traditional school that had events such as dances and pep rallies.
“My dad told me it would be a waste of my talent, of my potential, just to stay home because I was scared of missing my family and everything.” -Esmir Bajraktarevic on joining the Revolution
While these moments would have been fun–and are rites of passage for most teenagers–Esmir is confident in the path he’s taken.
“I think about that, but at the same time, you're always going to want to have one or the other,” Esmir explained. “And ever since I was little, the only thing I've ever wanted was to be a professional soccer player and to be the best I can be at what I do. So honestly, there wasn't really any thinking going into it. I knew the sacrifices that had to be made and I kind of accepted them from a young age.”
But the journey of being a professional soccer player hasn’t always been easy for the talented youngster.
Despite making regular contributions with the second team in 2023–accumulating six goals and one assist–his time with the first team was limited to 13 regular-season appearances. He did, however, collect a goal in the Leagues Cup.
But as always, Esmir put in the work, looking to make the most of any opportunity he got.
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Esmir’s first call-up by the United States Soccer Federation came in 2022 when he was invited to a U-20 January camp. Later that year, he featured for the U-19s, helping them win the Slovenia Nation’s Cup.
After playing for the Olympic team, which included scoring a goal against Mexico, Esmir got his first senior call-up in Jan. 2024.
During the camp, he had a goal and assist in a scrimmage against the River Plate U-23s and created several highlight reel moments in a friendly against Slovenia.
Esmir’s 29-minute performance earned praise from national pundits. His first touch, a meg, was a showcase of his skill.
Esmir noted that he “didn’t really think about it too much” because he “kind of just lets everything come naturally.” In some ways, the play was a nod to his time with Liam and others back in Wisconsin.
“After all of these long trips and playing in tournaments [when they were younger], they would get together–eight of them–and they would play street soccer on their own,” Kevin recalled. “The goal was not to score goals, but to embarrass each other with megs and things like that.”
Making his international debut for the United States was something that Esmir values, saying, “It was a great experience. I learned a lot from it, playing at that level.”
He was so overtaken by the moment that he almost traded away his debut jersey. A Slovenian player asked to exchange shirts after the final whistle and Esmir obliged. Fortunately, he was able to get it back before it was lost forever.
Esmir explained, “I remember Jack McGlynn was like, ‘Where's your jersey?’ And I was like, ‘I traded it with one of the players.’ He's like, ‘Bro, go get that. That’s your debut jersey!’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God, you're right. I completely forgot.’
“So I went back to him, and I was like, ‘Sorry, man. Can I get my jersey back?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it's completely fine.’ So I got my jersey back, thankfully.”
Esmir gave the recovered jersey to his brother, Osman, who proceeded to put it on. For the rest of the night, Osman was asked to autograph items. Perhaps this was an indicator of how well Esmir performed in the game.
The hope is that Esmir can add more jerseys to his collection in the years to come. He is eligible for the next two Olympics, including the one taking place in Paris this summer.
But Esmir isn’t getting too far ahead of himself. He’s still a young player and he’s looking to make the most of any opportunity that’s presented to him.
Born in the United States, Esmir is honored to have played for the Stars and Stripes.
“I was born here, I was raised here,” Esmir said. “English is probably my first language. I'm just in the environment and all my friends around me are American, so it's obviously great growing up here and I'm really thankful for it. Obviously, my family built a new life here and everything, so I'm very proud of being American as well [as being Bosnian].”
“It's obviously great growing up here and I'm really thankful for it. Obviously, my family built a new life here and everything, so I'm very proud of being American as well [as being Bosnian].”-Esmir Bajraktarevic
Esmir hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing for the Bosnian National Team. He said he had contact with some people from the organization last year, but he didn’t have his Bosnian passport yet. Getting it midseason proved to be difficult.
He explained, “I can say now that I am in the process of getting my Bosnian passport and I should have it soon.”
Esmir is proud of his Bosnian heritage. After the Slovenia game, he was spotted wearing a chain with a Bosnian emblem on it. The jewelry, which his parents got for him when they were in Bosnia, is something he wears often.
“[Being Bosnian is] obviously a huge part of who I am,” Esmir said. “My name is Esmir Bajraktarevic, so it's who I am. When people ask me where I'm from, I say, obviously I'm Bosnian. So it's something that's a huge part of me. I grew up in a Bosnian household. I speak Bosnian to my parents every day. It's a huge part of who I am. It's my blood, it's my roots. So I'm very proud to be from there.”
As a young player with a profound love for both countries, Esmir isn’t ready to commit to either national team. In fact, he’s taking things day by day and concentrating on the present.
“As of right now, I'm just keeping all my options open,” Esmir said. “Obviously, I'm still very young, and honestly, my main focus right now is just preseason [with the Revolution].”
The Revolution have a new head coach in Caleb Porter and Esmir is hoping to make a positive impression on the man who has won two MLS Cups.
“Honestly, I like it all very much,” Esmir said of playing for Porter. “I think the whole group loves it. There are a couple of new players, new staff, new coaches, and it seems like we have a real plan on what we want to do. In every session, there's a purpose. We're going in a direction, and, honestly, I'm very excited for this year.”
Last summer, Esmir trained with the AZ Alkmaar of the Eredivisie. In a 90-minute performance for the AZ under-18 squad, he scored two goals in a 5-1 win over AFC Amsterdam.
“I grew up in a Bosnian household. I speak Bosnian to my parents every day. It's a huge part of who I am. It's my blood, it's my roots.” -Esmir Bajraktarevic
Moments like this, like the Slovenia performance, and like the goal scored in the Leagues Cup have gotten media personalities excited about Esmir’s potential.
And Esmir is dreaming of what could come as well, though he’s also keeping two feet on the ground as he looks to make the most of what’s in front of him.
“Obviously I want to play at the highest level that I can,” Esmir said. “It's a dream from when I was young to play at the highest level that I can. But right now, I'm just focused on the Revs, focused on this season, getting goals, getting assists, and helping the team as much as I can so we can win a trophy.”