Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Atlanta Silverbacks forward Emsad Zahirovic is a Shiloh graduate who began playing professionally out of high school with a Bosnian league instead of playing college soccer. He's in his first season under a pro contract with the Silverbacks.
ATLANTA -- A few months back, Emsad Zahirovic faced long odds.
The former Shiloh standout was in a large pool of soccer players at the Atlanta Silverbacks combines, a series of three tryouts for the North American Soccer League franchise that revived its professional men's soccer team this year after a brief hiatus.
Hundreds of players from all over the world turned out for the opportunity, but few survived. Only three from Zahirovic's tryout of more than 100 made the Silverbacks' roster.
Fortunately, he was one of them.
"It felt great (to make the team)," Zahirovic said. "It's like a weight lifted off your shoulders. It's easier from then on. It's just every day practicing and getting better and better every day, but the tryouts were hard because there were so many guys. Everybody wants to show something, so it was real difficult.
"I was trying to show movements mostly because I knew I wasn't going to get the ball that much with so many guys trying out that day. So I just had to make movements and play normal soccer."
The 6-foot-2, Bosnian-born striker showed enough in his tryout to make his dream come true. Nearly five years removed from finishing his high school career, he had earned his first professional contract.
That was Zahirovic's goal when he left Shiloh, but it didn't come easily. He played year-round with the Atlanta District Amateur Soccer League, starring for the B&H International team with other Bosnians from 2006 until earlier this year. He led the league in scoring three times, including a 2010 season that saw him score 23 goals in 15 games.
He had opportunities to play college soccer, but turned them down.
"School wasn't in my heart," he said. "If I don't want something, I won't really chase it that hard. But I really love soccer. I wanted to chase that. ... It's been my dream to keep playing soccer, keep playing anywhere. I don't care where."
The roots of that dream are based in his native Bosnia, where he lived until he was 11. His father was a goalkeeper there and his uncle was a striker.
Zahirovic didn't play for organized teams or coaches in Bosnia, playing what he called "street soccer" instead. He said a great deal of his skills were developed growing up there and competing with top players.
"It was competitive there," the 23-year-old said. "You've got all these guys with talent who don't play anywhere. It's basically wasting talent because nobody sees you. It's hard to make yourself seen. Mostly we got together with other cities and played tournaments."
He still returns yearly to visit family in Bosnia.
"I love it there. I really do," Zahirovic said. "I think there's more freedom there than there is here honestly. But living-wise, here is better. All of the opportunities you have in the United States, whatever you want you can accomplish it."
Zahirovic is living proof of that.
He came to the U.S. not knowing a lick of English, but learned the language in a month by hanging out with friends who spoke it fluently. He shined at Shiloh and with club teams, then made his mark in Atlanta's tough amateur league.
Now he has a professional contract with the Silverbacks, relishing the spot he holds after surviving tryouts.
"Until I'm ready to go to the next level, and I think they should know when I'm ready and can see sending me to a better team, I'll be willing to stay here until I'm ready," Zahirovic said. "I love it here. I love the team and it's my hometown."