Neven Subotic's journey from Bosnia war refugee and struggling teen wannabe in the United States to Borussia Dortmund and the Champions League appears to blur the lines of reality. The 24-year-old Serbia defender has already crammed a lot in but it is where he intends to go next that he hopes will provide the fantasy.

The heartbreak of the Champions League final defeat to Bayern Munich at Wembley last season might never leave him. "I still haven't watched the game in full," he says. "I know how it turns out and it is not that exciting." The delivery is deadpan.

The recovery is under way. Dortmund are playing well and they are getting results, most recently the 6-1 battering of Stuttgart on Friday. They lurk on Bayern's shoulder in the Bundesliga while the 2-1 win at Arsenal in the Champions League two weeks ago has put them in good heart for thereturn on Wednesday night. Win at the Westfalenstadion and Dortmund would take a significant step towards the last 16 and the broader goal of establishing themselves among Europe's elite.

They are not there yet, Subotic says, despite their eye-catching achievements over the past three seasons, the headline items of which have been the Bundesliga title in 2011, the league and cup double in 2012 and that wild ride to the Champions League final last time out.

The foundations are in place. A young team have grown together and, listening to Subotic, it is clear that a deep bond has formed between the players, the manager Jürgen Klopp, and the rocking home crowd. There have been high-profile departures yet the team's core has remained intact while, with an average of 25, the players' prime years appear to lie ahead. Dortmund, on the brink of bankruptcy in 2005, have risen to the big time and consistency can now lever them to the next level. The possibilities are tantalising.

"We have grown and so have our expectations," Subotic says. "I don't think we are at the point where if we don't win the national title, it is a terrible season. We have some time until that – first, we have to buy the big players for €60m or €100m.

"But we are on the way to establishing ourselves. We always have to be at the top to say we are a top team and we've been very close to it over the last three years. We now want to establish that over the next few years and continue to grow.

"I was born in 1988, I'm 25 at the end of this year and I'm in the older half of the team. If you think about the Milans and the Inters, where you are 30 and maybe in the older half of the team, it is definitely something different and special."

Subotic dreams big because he knows from experience that anything is possible. Born in Banja Luka in what was Yugoslavia and is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, he and his family fled to Schomberg in Germany just before the Bosnian civil war began in March 1992.

His father, Zeljko, who played for Maribor in what is now Slovenia, gave up the game to work as a labourer while his mother cleaned houses and worked in old people's homes. "For any Bosnian Serb coming to Germany this is the only type of work you will get as an illegal immigrant," Subotic says. "I just saw my parents work a lot of hours to help their family back in Bosnia."

They moved again in 1999 after the expiry of their residence visa in Germany and rather than be deported to Bosnia-Herzegovina, they followed an immigration programme that set them up in the United States, initially in Salt Lake City. After a year, and because of the promise that his sister, Natalija, had shown at tennis, they relocated to Florida so that she could enrol at Nick Bollettieri's academy.

Subotic pursued his football, training in the local park, either alone or with Zeljko, and he struggled to find a team. The US system contained rather large cracks and Subotic looked likely to fall through them. "It is a joke," he says. "You've got one of the kids, who probably doesn't play but his dad ends up being the coach, because nobody wants to coach, and so the kid plays. The system is very leisurely."

His break came after he asked to join in a game at the park; the team's coach turned out to be an assistant for the United States Under-17s. A trial followed and Subotic was accepted on to the national team's residency programme in Bradenton, Florida, the city in which he lived. Things started to happen. Playing for the Under-17s in the Netherlands he came to the attention of a British agent, Steve Kelly, who got him a trial at Mainz in 2006. The manager was Klopp. Subotic signed and when Klopp moved to Dortmund in 2008, he followed. "Back in the US, I would never dream about playing for any kind of club in Germany because it was so far-fetched," Subotic says. "I had a lot of luck."

Klopp has been the game-changer for him and Dortmund. Subotic talks of the manager's passion, personable nature and tactical acumen, and it all adds up to a guy that the players want to go the extra mile for. Klopp's basic requirement is a ferocious work ethic that provides the platform for technical quality.

"We were one of the first teams to say that we wanted to cover more kilometres than the opponents and work on this pressing game but on a very offensive basis," Subotic says. "He wants us to do our job, plus five or 10% more to really get there. We want to do more than close the opponents down. We want to close them down, get the ball and fight for it.

"Stats are very important to him. We never want to run less than the opponent and it's not just more than them, but as much as we can to dominate. As soon as we lose the ball, we are back behind it so the opponent has to play against 10 players – not five because the other five are still at the front and walking back."

Klopp has performed the rare trick of identifying young players with huge potential and developing them in a creative and harmonious environment. The products have been loyalty, spirit and an ultra-competitive mentality.

"The core has remained the same for five years and the team has grown together, which is what makes it special," Subotic says. "It's very unique nowadays, in a game where you have players who are here one minute and then, in the winter, they are loaned out. I can look at almost anyone in the team and recount 30 times where he saved my butt or I saved his butt."

Subotic sounds American and if he had pursued his international career with the USA he would be bound for the World Cup finals. Ditto, Bosnia-Herzegovina, who have also qualified. "But my parents are Serbian," he says, " … and all my family are Serbian. With a large chunk of them living in the Serbian part of Bosnia, it was the only real option. It was a step back to my roots."

Serbia have not qualified and so next summer promises a lull. Subotic has plenty on his mind before then.