Rokas Pukštas – The American Paving His Own Path To European Success by Shay Hicks

Rokas Pukštas – The American Paving His Own Path To European Success by Shay Hicks

Player Bio:

Name – Rokas Pukštas
Nationality – American/Lithuanian
D.O.B – 25.08.2004 (18 years old)
Height – 181cm (5’11”)
Strong Foot – Left
Current Club – HNK Hajduk Split
Position – CM/RW/RWB
Value – €3.00m (via Transfermarkt)

Career Summary:

Rokas Pukštas has had a fairly unique career path for an American teenager. Thanks to his ambitiousness and drive, he is currently thriving in the SuperSport HNL with Croatian giants Hajduk Split. The versatile midfielder has slotted into a variety of roles for his side and has already shown flashes of greatness in his first season of senior football. Rokas is a player that, in my opinion, doesn’t get the attention he deserves. Maybe this is due to his style, or possibly because he plays in a league that is less accessible than the ‘top 5′. Either way, in this report I will discuss Rokas’ path from youth football to success with Split, as well as what makes him such an intriguing prospect in both domestic and international football.

Rokas began life in the USA, born in the University town of Stillwater, Oklahoma, where his parents worked as Assistant Athletic Coaches at Oklahoma State University. He was born into a Lithuanian family with a great athletic heritage, with his father Mindaugas competing as a marathon runner for his country at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. His mother Živilé was also an athlete (although not at the Olympic level), as she was an accomplished Triple Jumper in her day. Naturally, being surrounded by sports from an early age, Rokas was keen to pick up a sport. According to the Rokas in an interview from June 2018, his father showed him football at the age of 6, and he has played ever since. You can even find footage of Rokas at various youth football sessions on the YouTube channel ‘Mindis78’, presumably uploaded by his father Mindaugas.

An image taken from Rokas’ first game as captain of the US u-15 team.

Pukštas’ earliest recorded steps into organised football are with local side Oklahoma Energy FC, where he played as a midfielder for their under-13s side. He immediately stood out as a young player and would continue to perform very well in the following years. His performances would earn him media attention extremely early in his career, being interviewed alongside then-senior team and current Atlanta United 2 head coach Steve Cooke following a call-up to the US under-15s by local news outlet The Oklahoman. Coincidentally, Rokas would perform well while representing his country, playing several times and even captaining his side once in a trip to Zagreb, Croatia, becoming the first Oklahoma-born player to captain any USNT squad at any level in the process.

Clearly there was a lot of attention on Rokas, but he would continue to thrive in football. He would join the Sporting Kansas City academy in 2018 and would truly hit the ground running, managing to score 15 goals in just 19 appearances for the under-15 side. He would also manage 7 appearances for the under-17 side, scoring a goal in their leagues’ playoffs. His 2018/19 campaign would also see him draw interest from one of the best academies in the world, being invited to an ultimately unsuccessful trial with Manchester United.

The 2019/20 campaign would see Rokas be rewarded for his hard work, but outside factors would disrupt his footballing journey. In January 2020, Rokas would join the prestigious Barça Residency Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona. He would be joining a very successful program, which has seen the likes of Barcelona B defender Julián Araujo, RB Leipzig attacker Caden Clark (currently with New York Red Bulls) and Middlesbrough striker Matthew Hoppe (currently with Hibernian). Unfortunately this move would coincide with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, which greatly impacted Rokas’ time with the academy. His development would continue steadily, but whilst this situation would be frustrating for Pukštas, he would soon make the biggest step in his career.

After having his initial months with the Barça Residency Academy interrupted, Rokas was given the chance to join a prestigious academy in a somewhat familiar city, signing for Hajduk Split in September of 2020. He would make an immediate impact with the club’s u-17 side, scoring on his debut in early October. He would continue to impress, maintaining his place in the starting line up after his debut and playing the majority of their games across the 2020/21 season.

The 2021/22 season would see Pukštas gain his first experience in senior football, as well as a great achievement with his national team. He would impress early in the u-17 side’s campaign, going on an impressive run of form that would see him provide 7 assists in the first half of the season. Pukštas would make his debut for the US u-20 squad during this time, making fairly brief appearances in friendlies against the Colombia u-19s and the Mexico u-20s. His league form, along with some solid performances in the UEFA Youth League and for the US u-20 side, would help him to earn his first call-up to the Hajduk senior squad. Rokas would join the side in February, being named as an unused substitute in back-to-back games against Šibenik and Gorica. He would then bounce between the youth and senior sides, playing often in the Prva HNL Juniori and regularly making the bench of the first team. Eventually, then-Split head coach Valdas Dambrauskas would hand Rokas his first-team debut, managing 82 minutes in midfield in a 2-1 win over Hrvatski Dragovoljac.

The summer of 2022 would see Rokas compete in the Concacaf u-20 Championship after impressing head coach Mikey Varas in his debut performances earlier in the season. Rokas had made his intentions to compete for a spot in the squad known early, notably turning down the opportunity to switch allegiances and play for the Lithuanian senior squad in March. The US side were considered the heavy favourites to win the tournament after winning the last two Championships in 2017 and 2018. The US side wouldn’t take long to assert their dominance, beating St. Kitts and Nevis 10-0 in their first game. Rokas would score his only goal of the tournament in this game, netting a header to make the game 4-0 on the stroke of half-time. He would make a cameo appearance as a very late sub in a draw against Canada before playing the full 90 minutes in the final group stage game (a 3-0 win over Cuba). Rokas would only play one more time in the knockout stages, playing just under an hour in a 2-0 win over Costa Rica in the quarter-finals, on the way to his side winning the tournament for the third time in a row, an impressive achievement when you consider that they had never won the tournament prior to this run.

Pukštas had a very promising 2022/23 season, quickly becoming a mainstay in the first-team squad as well as helping the u-19 side make an unlikely run to reach the final of the UEFA Youth League. He made the majority of his appearances with the senior side, along with some impressive performances for the youth sides and a handful of matches with Croatian second tier side NK Solin, who essentially act as a B-team for the senior squad. Rokas had a very impressive season, scoring 4 times and providing 3 assists in 21 total league appearances (15 starts). On top of this, Pukštas made 5 starts in 5 games during Split’s successful Croatian Cup run which ended with a 2-0 win over HNK Sibenik in the final. Besides his attacking returns, one thing that stood out over the season was his versatility, something that is particularly impressive for a young player in his first full senior season. Rokas filled in at CM or AM in midfield, out wide as a RW and even played RB against NK Lokomotiva. Rokas has seamlessly filled in wherever head coach Ivan Leko has positioned him, maintaining his quality and continuing to impress fans in Split. Rokas was also awarded the chance to represent the USA at the u-20 World Cup (despite initial reports indicating that Split would not allow him to be selected). He arrived late to the squad due to the end of Split’s season clashing with the start of the tournament, but eventually joined the squad as they entered the knockout stages of the tournament. Pukštas would only manage 2 substitute appearances but still managed to impress, scoring late on with an impressive back post header vs New Zealand. He would be subbed on earlier in the Quarter-Final match, but was ultimately unable to push his side to the Semis as they lost 2-0 to Uruguay.

Key dates in Rokas’ career:

May 2018 – First recorded appearances for the US u-15s, becomes first Oklahoma-born player to captain a USMNT team at any level
25.07.2019 – announced as a member of the US squad for the U-15s CONCACAF Championship
19.11.2019 – Announced as a member of the 2019 United Soccer Coaches Youth Boys All-Central Region team
March 2020 – Joins the Barça Residency Academy USA
21.09.2020 – Joins the Hajduk Split Academy
05.11.2020 – signs his first professional contract with Hajduk Split
13.08.2021 – makes his Hajduk Split u-19s debut vs Slaven Belupo
13.11.2021 – makes his US u-20s debut vs Colombia
04.03.2022 – signs an improved 3-year deal with Hajduk Split
29.04.2022 – makes his senior debut for Hajduk Split vs Hrvatski Dragovoljac
10.09.2022 – scores his first senior goal whilst playing for Hajduk Split sister club NK Solin
12.11.2022 – scores his first senior goal for Hajduk Split

Key Moments:

For this report, I have chosen several moments from a Hajduk Split match against HNK Šibenik. Split would take a 3-0 league before eventually winning the match 3-2, largely thanks to Rokas’ performance on both sides of the ball.

Rokas uses his high work-rate and awareness to make himself very effective in midfield. Here, he takes a chance and pushes forward from his position in order to intercept a pass. The Šibenik player’s pass is inaccurate, allowing Rokas to reach out and knock the loose ball towards a teammate.

Rokas has very good vision, and in this moment hcombines it with some flair to set his teammate up for a shot. He receives a looping pass into the box, brings the ball down well with his first touch and then backheels the ball into the path of a teammate running into the box.

Quick thinking is a crucial part of a midfielder’s game, and in this moment Rokas manages to produce something out of seemingly nothing. Following an aerial duel nearby, Rokas jumps ahead of a nearby Šibenik player to reach the ball first. He holds off a challenge well, then chooses to carry the ball forwards into traffic. He eventually forces another Šibenik player to foul him from behind, winning a free kick in theprocess.

Most of Rokas’ impact comes in defensive plays, but he can be just as effective in attack. He reacts quickly to an inaccurate pass intended for a teammate, eventually collecting the ball on the right wing. He carries the ball upfield before pausing to allow his teammates to join the attack. He subtly signals for a teammate to make an overlapping run down the touchline, then plays a pass into his path, setting him up to cross the ball.

Rokas’ most notable moment in this match was his goal, a goal which proved to be decisive in a 3-2 win. Rokas makes a run into the huge space ahead of him, going unnoticed by the Šibenik defence. He arrives at the edge of the box at the perfect time, as his teammate notices him and plays a pass into the box. Rokas collects the ball on the corner of the 6yd box, and with limited options he powers a shot past the goalkeeper and into the near side of the net.

Clearly feeling confident after his goal, Rokas makes a calculated risk in midfield that immediately starts an attack. He receives a chested pass, and without looking he knocks the ball past himself and towards a teammate. He follows up by making a forward run, then receives a short pass and carries the ball towards the box. He eventually pauses on the right wing, then attempts to make space for himself but has his cross blockedby a defender.

Whilst the quality of his final product can vary, Rokas is very good at progressing play and taking the ball into the opponents’ half effectively. He collects a loose ball in his own half and begins carrying the ball forward. He senses pressure from behind and plays a short forward pass. Rokas recognises the space ahead of him, so continues his run and receives the ball again.He carries the ball into the final third and cuts inside, but his eventual pass goes straight to a Šibenik defender.

What’s Next?

It’s nice to train him. He can’t wait for training. Absorbs information, open. He has a lot of quality, he can’t wait to progress. He can be an example, as he trains, he lives for it. It is no coincidence that he scored two goals in Varaždin… he is box to box, something like Lampard, Gerrard, Pašalić.

Hajduk Split Head Coach Ivan Leko when asked about his opinion of Rokas’ efforts in training.

Rokas is a truly unique player, both in career path and ability. He has been slotted into numerous positions across the pitch during his time in Croatia, almost always giving a high-quality performance. Away from his actual footballing ability, it is clear that Pukštas possesses an incredible work-rate, as well as the ambitions of a top player. At some point Rokas will need to be committed to one single role (presumably as a box-to-box midfielder) in order to aid his development as a footballer, but for now his willingness and commitment to his team has awarded him plenty of game time. Split’s league campaign proved to be a failure, finishing 10 points behind winners Dinamo Zagreb as they won the title for the 6th successive season. However, with a successful cup run and European qualification secured for next season, Rokas will have a chance to display his talents and test himself on a new stage during the 2023/24 season. Considering his impressive performances this season and his track record of adapting quickly to new environments, I’m sure that Split will be looking to give Rokas a bigger role in the squad for the upcoming season, hopefully with a more concrete role within the starting 11.

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