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Soccer: Forsyth County resident gets shot at U-17 Croatian national team
Savannah Sabo
Savannah Sabo is a Forsyth County resident who is a freshman at IMG Academy in Florida. She will try out for the Croatian U-17 women's soccer national team later this month. Photo submitted

Savannah Sabo has been to California; she’s seen Argentina and she’s visited Spain.

Sabo is currently in Bradenton, Florida, and later this month she’ll be on the Adriatic coast, in Medulin, Croatia, where she’ll compete for a chance to play for the Croatian national team in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.

Sabo, 15, was an eighth-grader at Lakeside Middle School a year ago. Soon, she’ll have a chance to compete on an international stage among some of the world’s top soccer players.

“I am nervous, but once I get into it and once I get there, I don’t really see anything else,” Sabo said. “I go. I just do my thing and stay focused.”

Sabo has a unique advantage.

After all, she’s been assigned a nutritionist, mind coach, physical therapist, position coach and head coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a boarding school that specializes in athletic training.

She typically starts school around 7:40 a.m. each day and leaves at either 10:30 a.m. or 12:10 p.m. — depending the day of week. From there, she begins goalkeeper practice at 1:15, then transitions into regular practice, which can involve activities such as weightlifting or mental yoga.

On Wednesday, Sabo had a particularly relevant exercise: a lesson in fixing your mind to a single goal.

“We work together as a team to focus on team-building concepts. So, basically something like staying focused and how you can put that into practice in games,” Sabo said. “So, focusing on what’s important now, rather than outside thoughts, like a test you’ll have on Monday or something in your personal life. You need to focus mainly on what’s going on in that moment. That’s something we learned today.”

Sabo’s father, Alan Sabo, said she would have attended South Forsyth High School, but decided IMG Academy offered the best training.

The school has produced professional athletes such as Jose Fernandez in baseball, Michael Beasley in basketball, Julius Jones in football, as well as U.S. Men’s National Team regulars, Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore.

“We finally made the decision to go down to IMG, specifically for the goalkeeper training,” Alan Sabo said. “There’s no better keeper training on the planet. The team’s not quite as good as Tophat, but it is definitely one of the top goalkeeping programs in the country.”

Savannah Sabo’s affiliation with Croatia runs through her father’s side, as her great-grandparents emigrated from Croatia to the United States.

Sabo must apply for dual-citizenship to compete with the Croatian national team, which hopes to be one of three European teams to crack the 16-team tournament.

Sabo has never been to Croatia, nor does she speak Croatian, but she doesn’t expect the language barrier to stand in her way once she’s on the pitch.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of them speak English, because I know that a lot of European countries teach that through middle school and high school,” Sabo said. “English has become so important in the world today, just for business and everything else. I think the majority of them will know English, but I’m going to try to learn a couple of Croatian words.”

Sabo’s selection to Croatia’s U-17 camp comes mere months after she represented the United States in Buenos Aires, where her team beat the host Argentinians.

“When I played the foreign teams, they were really quick,” Sabo said. “They play a lot faster, they’re a lot smoother with the ball and they just work really well together and connect on a lot of good passes.”

Sabo said she began playing soccer when she was 3 or 4. Her father was — and still is — a goalkeeper, and she knew at that age she was meant to play that position.

“I was probably the only kid on the field who wasn’t afraid of getting hit by the ball,” Sabo said with a laugh, “so that’s probably why they put me in there, but I’ve played it ever since.”

Sabo will undoubtedly bring a bit of American flair when she arrives at her tryout in Croatia; her favorite soccer player growing up was fiery U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper Hope Solo, a symbol of the country’s dominance on the pitch over the past decade.

Sabo even crafted a motto in tribute to the two-time Olympic gold medalist: “From Solo to Sabo.”

“I loved the way she played,” Sabo said, “because she was a captain on the team, she commanded everyone on the field, she could make any save and she was just a really good role model for a goalkeeper.”

Sabo will look to emulate that style when she steps onto the pitch in Croatia, hoping to secure her spot among some of the best soccer players the world has to offer.