ST. CHARLES – Vladi Velikin says he once saw himself as a lower-level goalkeeper “who would not be able to achieve much.”
Velikin, a 21-year-old Glenbard North graduate and former goalkeeper coach at Bartlett and St. Charles East, is now beginning to realize his professional soccer aspirations.
Velikin has signed to play for at least one year as a goalkeeper with FC Sozopol, a Bulgarian Association soccer club that plays in the “Third League,” the third tier of professional Bulgarian soccer.
“I was bad when I started for multiple years and got better in high school,” Velikin said. “However, [I] still didn’t see myself going anywhere with soccer.
“After high school, I had quit for a while before snapping some sense into myself ... and started training like never before [with] two, three sessions a day with a more serious diet and regime. [It] helped me improve and reach a level I never thought I could.
“I was always the backup or third-string goalkeeper growing up and now although I am starting as a backup again, I am starting my professional career and chasing my dreams.”
The experience will be a homecoming of sorts.
Velikin was born in the town of Dupnitsa, about one hour south of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. Velikin and his family moved to the United States when he was an infant. He grew up in Glen Ellyn and Carol Stream.
Velikin coached under Vince DiNuzzo at both Bartlett and St. Charles East. He was at St. Charles East during the 2017-18 school year, coaching both the boys and girls programs.
“Vladi’s strength has always been his work ethic,” DiNuzzo said. “I think he will do whatever the team and staff needs of him to help the team win.”
“The one-year coaching stint helped me a lot because I was able to mature throughout the process,” Velikin said. “It really helped me re-realize how much I wanted to play at a higher level.”
Playing at a high level is in the blood. Velikin’s grandfather played professionally as a goalkeeper in Bulgaria’s first division and had a chance to play in the Olympics.
“1968, I believe, was the year he almost got chosen,” said Velikin, who played multiple positions growing up. “When I found this out, I immediately wanted to be a goalkeeper, so I could follow in his footsteps and also because I was better at it than at any other position.”
Velikin’s talent and perseverance has now led him to opportunities he perhaps once thought not possible.
Velikin traveled to Bulgaria in March to have a tryout with a first division team, Etar Veliko Tarnovo. He ended up having to wait and trained instead for three months with Sozopol, along with his hometown team, Marek Dupnitsa, and a private goaltending coach.
After completing the trial with Etar Veliko Tarnovo in early June, Velikin said he was told the team wasn’t in need of a keeper at the time. But his training with Sozopol – a “perfect fit” – paid off.
“We have current and former youth national team players between the ages of 17 [through] 21 and because of this, the level of play and atmosphere in training and in games is very high,” Velikin said. “I can only benefit from it.”