Hard work and sacrifice can only take an athlete so far.

Hard work, sacrifice and otherworldly talent are part of what defines an elite one.

Westport's Kyle Zajec checks all three boxes, and his entire soccer career has been evidence of this. It's been one consistent ride to the top, and one that will continue at the next level. Last week, Zajec made his debut for the New York Red Bulls' reserve team. Soon, he will head to Georgetown University with a possible professional career at the end of the road.

Zajec comes from a soccer family of Slovenian descent -- his dad played at Division III Colby College and coached him until he was 10, and his younger sister Tia stars for the Staples girls team -- and tried little else during his upbringing.

"I guess I was an unusual case," Zajec said. "It was mostly soccer with a little golf on the side. I guess I liked it because it's a team sport and you're playing with your friends."

He spent his formative years playing for the Westport Youth Soccer Association. He graduated to Beachside, one of the premier travel clubs in the area. There he was on the first team from Connecticut to win the Region I championship at the U12 level.

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Throughout his early soccer career, Zajec settled into the center midfield position. One of the most vital spots on the field, Zajec felt his skill set was a natural fit.

"I guess you have to have a good awareness of the game," Zajec said. "You have to have a good range of passing; you have to shoot, tackle and be pretty fast."

The Red Bulls ran local clinics that Zajec attended from age 9, eventually leading to an offer with their academy when he turned 13.

"It was a big step up, but I knew some of the coaches and it wasn't as big of a transition it could have been," Zajec said. "I was excited because they had a good reputation of sending kids to good colleges."

In the fall of 2012, the academy program switched to a 10-month structure and banned its players from participating during the short high school season. The decision -- which prevented Zajec from playing with Staples -- has created a rift between academy and high school soccer.

"I think kids should have the option to play both; there's been times I wanted to play high games but couldn't," Zajec said. "Everyone wants to have that experience of playing in front of their school. I'm not too sure how to fix it, though."

That doesn't mean Zajec doesn't have a relationship with Westport soccer.

"Kyle has been a great friend of the Staples boys soccer program," said Wreckers coach Dan Woog. "He has played in our summer leagues, sat on our bench at matches and supported us 1,000 percent. Kyle has worked very hard to get where he is, and made tremendous sacrifices."

The natural comparison has arisen between Zajec and former Staples star Kyle Martino, who also was a stellar central midfielder who played at the University of Virginia, made 141 appearances in Major League Soccer from 2002-07 and played for the US men's national team.

During his academy life, Zajec was shuttled to and from the Red Bulls' training facility three-to-four times a week in Harrison, New Jersey -- 65 miles from Westport -- to train, in addition to games on the weekend. The commitment to the game and catching up on school work left time for little else.

"It was hard; I didn't get a lot of sleep," Zajec said. "I was able to drive this year, which helped."

Zajec was a consistent standout for the Red Bulls Academy in his high school years and eventually committed to Georgetown in the fall of 2013. At the U16 level his team posted the best record (11-0-2) in the nation.

Last week, Zajec signed an amateur contract with the Red Bulls, allowing him to maintain his collegiate status while remaining with the team.

Zajec turned 18 last Saturday and made his debut with Red Bulls II, the reserve side for the MLS team that plays in the United Soccer League. He started in midfield as his team drew 0-0 with the Rochester Rhinos. The match was the debut for Red Bulls II, which consisted of academy and players on loan from the first team. However, Zajec was the lone academy graduate to make the starting XI.

"In the first half it took me a little while to get adjusted," said Zajec, who added that it was a memorable experience playing at the Red Bull Arena. "By the second half I got used to it."

Zajec will join a Georgetown program that reached the national championship game in 2012 and went 14-4-5 and advanced to the quarterfinals last year. Zajec will continue to play for Red Bulls II before preseason workouts begin with the Hoyas.

"I really liked the coaches; that was a big pull," Zajec said. "They were really nice; I like that it's in Washington, D.C. It's a nice campus and has a good academic reputation. It just clicked on my visit. I'm going to try to make the most of it."

The career path could lead to a spot on an MLS roster in the future, and Zajec -- who plans to major in international economics -- has higher goals.

"I want to play after college," Zajec said. "And hopefully play in the World Cup; that would be awesome to play for your country."

rlacey@bcnnew.com, twitter.com/ryanlacey11