HALIFAX, NS – The Halifax Wanderers were under all the pressure in the world ahead of their final game of the regular season, a must-win versus Atletico Ottawa. For former Wanderers rookie Stefan Karajovanovic, that translated into excitement.
Halifax sat two points behind York United for the final spot in the Canadian Premier League playoffs in early November. With a win, Halifax would leapfrog them in the standings.
That final game was of extra significance for the Gatineau, Que. native Karajovanovic. He is a veteran of the Ottawa soccer scene, from his three seasons with the Carleton Ravens to stints with Ottawa South United of the Première Ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ) and the former Ottawa Fury Academy.
York, who the Wanderers were chasing, cut him in 2019 after drafting him fifth overall in the 2019 CPL-U SPORTS Draft.
A lot of his recent history came to a head in that Nov. 7 match. But his mind was entrenched in the match and nowhere else.
“As always, it’s exciting to play a team that’s from back home,” Karajovanovic said over a Zoom call from his sparingly decorated Halifax apartment.
The 2021 draft’s seventh pick had never been to Halifax before joining the Wanderers. Now, he would be in the lineup for a playoff-contending Wanderers team against his hometown club.
“It’s gonna be sick,” he said.
His first pro season was a 180-degree shift from his Ottawa club and university experience. On the pitch, he successfully challenged for a roster spot with the Wanderers, making the starting lineup in Halifax’s season opener versus Pacific FC.
But his largest change came off-field. It wasn’t only the regular COVID-19 protocols teams followed, including a month-long stay in the Winnipeg “bubble.”
The 2021 season was the first time he’s lived full-time outside of the Ottawa area.
He played stints in Serbia and for AS Blainville of the PLSQ, nowhere near as commanding time-wise as his almost half a year in Halifax.
“Those were nothing like moving away and not seeing family for a long period of time,” Karajovanovic said. “But it’s an experience and I like it. It’s a nice lifestyle.”
It’s a new lifestyle, too. Moving out away from his brothers and the rest of his family, and “not having mom’s cooking anymore,” he said, was an adjustment.
So was arriving in Halifax, but he made the most of it. Getting to know the city was among his favourite parts of being a rookie Wanderer. A well-seasoned cafe hopper, checking out the city’s shops was a regular activity in his downtime.
“People say, ‘There’s not much to do in the city,’ and stuff like that. But I enjoy the atmosphere and being next to the water,” Karajovanovic said.
He couldn’t single out one favourite shop. The Bedford Basin Farmers Market cafe received a lot of love as a favourite reading spot. His go-to establishments downtown include Dilly Dally, Uncommon Grounds and The Daily Grind.
“I’ve been to quite a few spots,” he chuckled.
He frequented the establishments with teammates, especially with roommates Marcello Polisi and Alex Marshall. The three are in similar places, as first or second-year offensive-minded players finding their way in the CPL.
“We hung out quite a bit,” Polisi said of his relationship with Karajovanovic and Marshall, naming off video games, watching television and, of course, visiting cafes as three of their favourite group activities. “That social aspect really helps the team overall and with chemistry on the field. Having like-minded people around you motivates you more to chase your full potential.”
“When I came here at first [after being drafted], they made me feel like I was already part of the team,” Karajovanovic said of his teammates.
When he first joined the team, he was still competing for a contract. “No one ever put themselves above anyone else. Everyone did their thing, whether you had a contract or you didn’t. It was such a nice vibe.”
Once he made the squad, they experienced highlights both at home at Wanderers Grounds and on the road. For Karajovanovic, his “welcome to the pros” moment came in the Winnipeg bubble, walking onto the IG Field pitch ahead of his CPL debut.
“I walked in and saw the big stadium. That’s where it set in,” he said. “I just thought, ‘Damn, I made it.’ It’s my childhood dream of playing professionally.”
Karajovanovic played in Ottawa three times in 2021. He said many family members and friends made it to the games and was keen to point out former Carleton coach Kwesi Loney’s presence.
The two have stayed in touch since Karajovanovic finished with the Ravens in 2019. Loney said their conversations ramped up since the move to Halifax.
“Stefan’s one of the first players I coached to make the jump into the professional rounds. It was a truly proud moment to see him there,” Loney said of watching his former offensive star at Carleton take the pitch at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa. Karajovanovic scored 37 times in 35 matches as a Raven.
“We’ve talked lots about his performances. I’ve known him for years so I could give him some insights into what I saw. But I wanted to be there for him,” Loney said. “Regardless of where he moves on to, he’s always going to be Carleton alumni.”
Karajovanovic played the most minutes of any forward on the Wanderers this season with 1506. However, he and the team parted ways two weeks after tying Ottawa 1-1 in their final game. Halifax’s 8-11-9 (won-draw-loss) record was too little to extend their season into the playoffs.
At the time, the only “future” topic on his mind when asked was the Ottawa match. A playoff spot may not have been guaranteed, but learning more about himself on and off the pitch was. In one of the toughest years to be a CPL rookie, nonetheless.
“The season was something we’ve never seen before. Getting used to that was a big shock to the body,” he said. “But I handled it the best way I could. I focused on doing my thing and playing, which is what I’m paid to do. Other than that, I’m pretty set.”