A New York Soccer Story: Arun Basuljevic

RG8L9715

By JACK BELL

Red Bulls II logoSome people have said that soccer is much like chess. They are both games where players compete for territory, try to impose their strategy and will on the opposition, and, of course … win.

So perhaps the New York Red Bulls knew something about Arun Basuljevic that few other teams knew — the midfielder from Mahopac, N.Y., was a near-prodigy at the chessboard at the ripe young age of 8.

“It’s something I got into probably when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Basuljevic said. “My older brother was the brain of the family and was really good at chess. My parents [his father was born in Montenegro, his mother in the United States] said it would make things easier if I got involved. I took a liking to it and I’m really good at it. I’m really competitive, I want to win. I kind of stopped playing after I got more serious with soccer, but I regret it. I wish I had kept going because I was pretty good.

“At one point I was ranked in the top 10 in the nation when I was 8. I won the New York State championship as an 8 year old. It was a round-robin, where if you win you keep going. I remember winning that last game and walking into the room where my parents were and putting on a sad face, like from losing. They were all sympathetic, and then I surprised them when I broke the news that I had won.”

Cute kid. No?

Basuljevic (prounounced buh-soo-le-vich) has worked his way up through the Red Bulls’ academy system and was signed to a professional, homegrown contract earlier this year after three years at Georgetown. He is now playing for the club’s United Soccer League affiliate, Red Bull II. As a defensive midfielder he gets to survey the field and sees a direct corollary to his days as a chessman.

“What I’ll say is that soccer is a big thinking game and not everybody realizes that,” he said. “And chess is a huge thinking game. When you get to this level of soccer it is not just what you can do with the ball and impose yourself physically. It’s a lot about using your brain to get an edge. I think in that sense chess has probably sharpened my instincts.”

In his first year as a professional, Basuljevic, 21, has appeared in all 18 Red Bull II games, logging all 1,620 minutes and leading the USL with 1,285 total passes with an 84 percent completion rate. His 24 chances created is not bad for a deep-lying midfielder, even as the club struggles (6-9-3, good for eighth place in the Eastern Conference) after having won the USL title last year.

He traces his soccer beginnings to when he was 3 or 4 years old, playing in the Mahopac Sports Association before moving on to the Joe Palumbo Academy.

“It was amazing,” he said. “I owe a lot of my success to them, for sure.”

From there it was on to the storied club BW Gottschee in the Ridgewood section of Queens as a 10 year old.

“Up and back every day,” he said. “I didn’t realize the sacrifice my parents made. I remember sometimes being five, 10 minutes late for training and it would infuriate me. Then I started to drive and saw how much the tolls and the gas cost, driving and hour and 15 minutes each way every single day to training. It’s a big commitment and my mom, I remember her coming home from work and every day we’d be right out the door and down to Queens five days a week. It is amazing, because I couldn’t have done it without them. They provided me every opportunity to succeed.”

From Gottschee, it was on to the Red Bulls’ nascent academy, traveling to East Rutherford, N.J., to play in the bubble near Giants Stadium. An even longer commute, but “a great opportunity, which my parents thought was completely worth it.”

In those days, Basuljevic trained with players like Alex Muyl (who also played at Georgetown), Matt Miazga, Tyler Adams and Santiago Costaño. As a 12 year old, he played up with the U-14 squad.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said. “I don’t think I would have gotten the college looks without having been with the academy. Now having this opportunity, being able to move up through the ranks has been great. That vision has always been there, the opportunity to move up the pyramid to the first team.”

RG8L9867Before heading off to Washington, D.C., and Georgetown, Basuljevic captained the Red Bulls’ U-18 team and helped the club’s U-18 and U-16 Development Academy teams win national championships. He has been part of the United States at youth national team through U-20.

But now, it’s all different. It’s “work” and a “job.”

“I’ve gone from college and being the main guy on the team to coming here and being on the first team, but having to start with the USL team, which is great,” he said. “I’m a first year pro and I’m getting games week in and week out. Not everyone in this league can say that. So I’m fortunate.”

One of the biggest adjustments for any young player is the realization that there’s a lot of down time, hours of it each and every day. After a few hours training, it’s back to a house in East Hanover, N.J., that he shares with five other players.

“I’ve been surprised by all the down time,” he said. “It’s nice, it’s the best job in the world at times. When I get out of work and have the whole day ahead of me. I guess it’s a little weird, but I love it.

“Right now, it’s all kind of new. I’m at the point where it’s probably the longest season I’ve been in to date, and we’re only halfway through. For me, I just try to come to work every day and do all the things to prepare myself for the weekend. I want to be a guy the coaches can count on, a 90-minute guy.”

And although he admits to only casually returning to the chessboard (he confesses to being a “FIFA guy”) these days he does have a particular challenge in mind.

“I know Jesse is a Princeton guy and he’s pretty smart, so maybe I can challenge him in chess!”