It’s not every day the son of a Spanish international and Barcelona legend joins Major League Soccer.
But that’s what Jon Bakero will accomplish on January 19 when he hears his name called at the 2018 Draft. Bakero, the 21-year-old son of Jose Mari, is set to join the league after making a name for himself over the last four years at Wake Forest.
Bakero, who signed a senior contract with MLS last week, was named the MAC Hermann Trophy winner on Friday night after one of the finest offensive seasons in college soccer. He scored 16 goals and added 14 assists, earning ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors and cementing his status as a top senior prospect for MLS.
That glittering senior season wouldn’t have been possible, if it hadn’t been for Bakero's decision to join Wake Forest back in 2014. Inspired by a variety of factors, it offered him a chance to set off on his own path.
“Growing up, my dad – national team, Barcelona player – there was always a little pressure,” Bakero told topdrawersoccer.com. “Everyone was asking me ‘oh, are you going to be as good as your dad?’ I always said I wanted to be as good as I can be. It was not as much the pressure anyone put on me, because my dad doesn’t really care if I played soccer or not, he wants me to be happy. Coming here to the States and accomplishing everything I have here, feels a little better because I know it’s been all me.”
After making the decision during his senior year of high school to pursue a chance in the United States, Bakero linked up with andGoSports, one of the recruiting agencies recommended by a friend of his father’s. Jay Vidovich, head coach at Wake Forest at the time, traveled over to Spain to see Bakero in action, and offered him a spot on the team.
For Bakero, that was just the start of a new journey. When he finally stepped on campus ahead of the 2014 season, he had a lot of catching up to do – and plenty to learn.
“I arrived the day before preseason,” he said. “Everyone had been there for the whole summer working out. I was probably the least fit guy on the team. It was rough, going through preseason…I also didn’t know what the level was, so I came here and I was really impressed with how competitive it was, how fit the guys were, it was hard.
“It took me a couple months for me to get settled, and after a couple months, I started playing forward and started to feel a little more comfortable. I had a little more freedom with the ball, and obviously over the years, got more and more comfortable, got stronger. I think that helped my game. The transition took some time, but by my senior year I felt really comfortable and found my spot.”
During his freshman year, Bakero adjusted to his spot further up the field, scoring six goals and settling in as a forward. Each year, he improved and became a bigger and bigger part of the Wake Forest attack, even as Jay Vidovich left Wake Forest and Bobby Muus took over the program in 2015.
As a sophomore, he scored eight goals, and setup six others. His junior year, playing on a talented side that included Jacori Hayes and Ian Harkes, he scored seven, with a significant jump in minutes. Wake Forest made it to the national championship that year, losing to Stanford on penalty kicks.
Bakero paid tribute to the Wake Forest coaching staff for helping him improve each season.
“I took everything I could from the coaches, coach Muus, [assistant] coach [Steve] Armas even coach Jay [Vidovich],” he said. “They’ve taught me so much through the years so I tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could. Freshman year, started playing forward, scored a couple goals, I was like ‘maybe I could play here.’ Sophomore year through senior year we’ve had really good players on the team, so being around good players, every day makes you a better player. It was a process.”
One of the highlights off the field came in 2016. During the team’s spring season, they traveled to Spain. For Bakero, it was a chance to introduce his team to his family and country.
“That was one of my highlights from college, going to Spain for a week and spending some time in Madrid and Barcelona, taking everyone to my hometown, spending time with my family,” he said. “I feel like even players from here cannot take their teams from their hometown, so it was pretty special.”
Reflecting back on the decision to go to Wake Forest, Bakero – who had visited Miami and New York growing up but never any college campuses before picking the school – was thankful to have found the perfect fit.
“I could’ve ended up anywhere, so I’m really grateful,” he said. “It was a great match for me, because even now, if I could choose any school in the country, I would go back to Wake. I think that’s pretty cool.”
An elegant, graceful technical player, Bakero’s trajectory in MLS is something to keep an eye on. He can finish in just about any way possible, and has an uncanny ability to connect passes that suggests he could potentially feature as a No. 10. MLS coaches are leery to hand the reins to college attackers, and some could be deterred by a perceived lack of pace or athleticism.
Bakero isn’t put off by any of that. No matter what the next destination may be, he’s ready to continue to make a name for himself, just as he did when he first made the decision to come to the USA.
“With the draft, there’s so much you can’t control,” Bakero said. “I think that I have to focus on what I can control. Whatever team I end up, the only thing I can control is my work rate and attitude, so that’s the way I’m approaching this. I’m just excited for the opportunity. When I came here I had no expectations, no idea how everything is going to work out, so everything from now on is a prize for me.”