Senior defender returns home to Tampa

Senior Michael Bajza helped the Bulls come back to tie American University 1-1 on Monday on his second-half penalty kick. 

For many people, being home instills a sense of comfort matched by no other. After moving away during high school and for his first two years of college, USF men’s soccer Michael Bajza has returned to the comfort of his hometown to play 15 minutes from his family.

“To be honest with you, it’s kind of a dream come true,” the senior defender said. “We have a lot of guys who aren’t from Tampa, so when it comes to game day, I’m the one who has to ask multiple people for tickets … because I have friends coming to games and family coming from all across the state to watch.”

Bajza didn’t take a traditional path to playing under the lights at Corbett Stadium. He moved from Tampa to Minnesota to play high school soccer and then to North Carolina for his first two college seasons at N.C. State. Last year, he came back to Tampa as a transfer student and a part of him wishes he would have chose USF from the start.

“I talked to the coaches a little bit in high school, and I definitely feel like I made a mistake not coming here in the first place,” Bajza said. “I wanted to make up for that a little bit.”

Coach George Kiefer also wished Bajza would have come to USF from the start, but he’s pleased they were able to get him to come in at all.

“To have Mike here is excellent” Kiefer said.  “We were trying to get him on the front end too … but we’re happy to have him on the back end now.”

For his final collegiate season, Bajza is moving from midfield to center back, which seems like a large shift from facilitating goal scoring at midfield to being the leader of the back line on defense. Kiefer said he will thrive in his new role. 

“It’s a spot that I think is the best for him at South Florida, and also best for him to move on,” Kiefer said. 

Kiefer was impressed how fast he was able to make the transition and believes it makes him a better overall prospect when professional teams come calling. 

“To learn the spot in the spring and play against Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, The Rowdies and a lot of good pro teams and he’s done an excellent job,” Kiefer said.

Along with his leadership responsibilities on the field, Bajza is also thriving as a leader for the whole team, even though this is only his second year in the program.   

“I feel like age doesn’t define if you’re a leader or not,” Bajza said. “I feel like my entire soccer career, I’ve always been kind of a leader. It came natural and I’m very much enjoying the position that I am — and the team is — in right now.” 

Although Bajza wishes he would have come to USF from the start, he does realize that N.C. State brought him opportunities that he would not have received anywhere else. After being plugged in as a freshman and playing significant minutes for the Wolfpack, Bajza received a call that pushed him one step closer to fulfilling his ultimate dream of playing professional soccer.

That call was from the Under-23 Seattle Sounders, a player developmental program that recruits heavily from ACC schools. Bajza has been fortunate enough to play in Seattle during the past three summers. He’s even been able to train with U.S. Soccer star Clint Dempsey. 

“That was a great platform to train with them and be able to show my talents,” Bajza said. “That would be something to try and springboard off of after this year and move on to a higher level.”

Bajza has spent most of the past few years playing away from home, between his high school days in Minnesota, playing previously at N.C. State and competing out west with the Sounders. This constant travel and distance has made him appreciate his family and friends now that they have the opportunity to see him play more than ever.  

The travel and constant separation has also prepared him for a professional career in the largest sport in the world, where he could potentially play thousands of miles away from home. 

The ultimate goal for Bajza is to play professional soccer anywhere, but he would prefer to do it in the U.S. in Major League Soccer.

“That’s a goal, personally, for me: I want to play in the MLS,” Bajza said. “Being an American, I’ve always said I want to make it here before I make (it) elsewhere.” 

Kiefer said Bajza is a guy who could play at the next level and have a good professional career.

“He has a really good soccer brain to be a coach,” Kiefer said. “He’s got a good personality and he can communicate so he can recruit. I definitely see him having a home in soccer if he wants it.”

After his playing career is over, Bajza has no intention of getting out of the game he’s loved his entire life. 

“Once I’m done playing, I’d probably want to stay in soccer coaching or recruiting,” Bajza said. “Soccer has been my whole life, athletics have been my whole life … it’s really kind of all I know, and it’s really all I ever want to do.”