By Brian Maurer
Photo courtesy of Crown Legacy FC
Nikola Petkovic (Age:20) - DM/CM - Charlotte FC
When Crown Legacy FC signed Petković, the move made more noise than your typical development team transfer. This is due to the estimated $3 million fee that was paid for him. In 2024, Petković could be expected to make an impact on the first team quicker than other Charlotte FC prospects due to the accompanying transfer tag. Here is a report on what the young midfielder could bring if promoted to the first team in 2024.
The attribute that stands out most about Petković’s passing is his ability to progress the ball with smart line-breaking passes. This shows up both in the eye test and with the stat sheet. According to Ben Griffis’ radar model, Petković is in the elite category at his position (DM, CM) in assists, xA, progressive passes, and xA per shot compared to other midfielders in MLS NEXT Pro.
Ben Griffis is a great source, you can find his work on X/Twitter here
Here are two visual examples from one of his Crown Legacy FC matches demonstrating his ability to make clever progressive passes.
In the short-passing example (below), Petković sees a small lane around the midfielder in front of him and hits his teammate, Brandon Cambridge, in space at the top of the box setting up a potentially dangerous moment for Cambridge.
Short passing example
In the long-passing example (below), the defensive lines are set up very compactly to try and force the passes out wide, but they also leave space behind them. Petković sees a small opening and puts a perfect ground pass through-ball past four defenders and at the foot of Cambridge, who has a direct 1 v 1 scoring opportunity.
Long passing example
What makes this longer-passing example special is that the defense was specifically set up to prevent the ball from progressing centrally. Regardless, Petković was clever enough to spot the run and put a perfect pass behind the defense. Creative plays like this are particularly difficult to defend because they defy defensive setup. If Petković can continue making special passes like this, opposition defenses will struggle to figure out a strategy to prevent him from finding success.
This past season for Crown Legacy FC Petković also demonstrated his ability to put himself in good positions while in possession. He was able to average more than two touches per 90 in the penalty area. For some positions, this doesn’t seem like many, but for a midfielder who often lies deep, this is a very high rate. It shows he can get himself positioned in dangerous areas with a limited amount of opportunity, given his role.
According to American Soccer Analysis, Petković is in the top 10 among MLS NEXT Pro central midfielders in receiving G+ per 90. This is further statistical evidence of his positioning while in possession, as players generally have to position themselves well to receive the types of passes that make them consistently add value to their team’s attacking phases of play.
He also is clever with how he times the occasional run behind backlines. In the visual below, you can see Petković wait for the opposition right back to get pulled out of position by Crown Legacy FC’s winger, which leaves space in behind. Petković times his run perfectly as he takes that space as the fullback is leaving it. This timing puts Petković in open space to receive a pass and attack space down the left flank.
Out of possession, Petković’s underlying numbers also support his ability to position himself well. Griffis’ radar model (shown above) highlights Petković as an above-average tackler and interceptor amongst MLS NEXT Pro defensive and central midfielders. Tackles and interceptions (T+I) can often be misleading stats as they can also mean a player is out of position a lot, which requires them to make extra tackles.
For a deeper-lying midfielder like Petković, when the T+I is also taking possession into account (pAdj), there is reason to believe that this stat helps support his positioning ability. This is because deep-lying midfielders are generally responsible for making tackles and interceptions to help prevent ball progression to the backline.
In the visual example below, Petković positions himself in the passing lane during a transition phase, preventing the attacker from making the close pass to continue the play. Petković then presses the ball and forces the attack to redirect back towards the right flank, where the defensive line is better prepared to react. If the attack was allowed to transition to the left there was lots of space behind that flank (second visual) and a potential 2 v 1 against the left back, which could have ended in a more dangerous situation.
Petković's positioning helped prevent the attacking progression from going towards Crown Legacy FC's vulnerability and instead shepherded the ball towards the heart of the defense, which led to a turnover and a harmless attacking sequence.
Petković is also capable of making good defensive recoveries by helping pick up his teammates who get beat on their assignment. In the example below, Petković can be seen making the long run to stop the ball after his teammate gets beat, preventing an attacking opportunity.
Petković can fill multiple roles within a game. In the image below you can see him positioned to be the deep-lying defensive midfielder in between the center backs while in possession (top left). He can also play between the lines in the attack in a more progressive box-to-box role, finding space to receive passes (top right). He also provides attacking support with strong runs into the box during the attacking phases (bottom).
The Serbian’s ability to play multiple roles within a midfield makes him capable of working with a wider range of strengths from his teammates and still finding success. A coach could opt for a more defensive lineup and Petković would still be able to provide an attacking threat with his creativity. A coach could also opt for an attacking lineup and Petković would be able to provide some defensive stability with his positioning abilities.
Areas for improvement
Work rate - Petković’s quality in positioning helps make him an efficient player. The question with him then is whether he can put in a full shift in a game situation where both teams are pushing themselves and there is a lot of running involved. In Crown Legacy FC’s match versus the New England Revolution II, he didn’t appear to have the motor for a full 90, and his pace was not high. This is also displayed by his low defensive actions per 90 stats, which can often provide insight into how a player works out-of-possession.
This isn’t necessarily going to always be an issue, as his positioning can often compensate for this. However, a teammate with a higher work rate as a partner in a double pivot may help cover some of this deficiency while also enhancing his creative abilities.
Weak foot - Petković showed lots of great passing with his stronger right foot. There are far fewer examples of his quality with his weaker left. There was an opportunity for him to take on a shot with his left against New England, and he was able to place it on target, but he wasn’t able to get the technique down to add enough power to make the shot as true a threat as the opportunity could have been.
Dribbling - His underlying numbers show that his dribbling is a bit limited. On the eye test, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is an issue, as he can often be quick to find a pass to help connect and progress play. The key for him is to also make sure he can hold off defenders in those instances when it is harder to find the pass.
Petković has several qualities that were lacking for Charlotte FC in 2023. Especially progressive passing, which is one of Petković's strongest traits. Given that Charlotte FC is lacking depth in deeper-lying midfielders who are strong progressive passers, there is a good chance Petković will make the roster and will compete for minutes out of the gate in 2024.