January 25, 2007 Niki Budalic at Toronto FC (from Kitchener-Waterloo Record)

SPORTS
Budalic hopes to make most of audition; Toronto FC looks at Waterloo player
JOSH BROWN
RECORD STAFF
506 words
25 January 2007
Kitchener-Waterloo Record
Final
C1
English
Copyright  2007 Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

Waterloo's Niki Budalic is finally getting his shot at playing top level professional soccer in Canada.

The former Bluevale Collegiate student has been invited to Toronto FC's training camp which begins next Thursday at the Soccer Centre in Vaughan. Toronto FC is Major League Soccer's newest franchise and the only one outside of the United States.

"It's a huge opportunity and very exciting, especially considering all the interest the team has been generating over the past three or four months," the 28-year-old said. "I just want to make an impact. I'm more than ready. I'm really looking forward to it."

Budalic headed south on a soccer scholarship to James Madison University in Virginia after graduating from BCI. He went on to win a Canadian university soccer title with Laurier in 2001 and was the United Soccer Leagues' A-League rookie of the year with the Toronto Lynx a year later.

The rising star spent the last three years playing for FC Haugesund in Norway's First Division. He returned home last winter to have surgery on his left hip and sat out three months this past summer with strained ligaments in his left knee.

But Budalic is back in action and feeling fine. He has been working out with a conditioning coach as well as with members of Toronto FC all winter.

The club contacted him a couple of months ago and extended an invitation to training camp. At 28, he'll be one of the more veteran players competing for a spot, but he's hoping his experience and versatility -- he can play forward or midfield -- will help set him apart.

"From what I've seen so far of my experience of playing in Europe seems to be an advantage because of the tactical training we got," said Budalic, who lives in Toronto. "In Europe it's a lot more strenuous than it is here.

"There are a lot of people with a lot of talent here but they don't have that experience."

Training camp begins next week in Toronto before moving to Fort Lauderdale later in the month. Additional sessions are scheduled for Bradenton, Fla., and Charleston, S.C., in March.

Budalic feels prepared and hopes to work his way on to the team.

"It depends on what the coach is looking for at this point," he said of his chances of making the squad. "Physically and mentally I'm where I need to be."

Budalic wishes Toronto FC had been here while he was growing up and thinks the team's presence will be a big boon for up-and-coming Canadian soccer players.

"It's absolutely huge," he said. "Everybody knew that there is a tremendous interest in soccer here, we just needed the right organization to take it to the next level."

jbrown@therecord.com

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