Okay, something’s definitely going on here. In the space of about six weeks or so we’ve seen Myer Bevan, Michael Boxall, Stefan Marinovic and Bill Tuiloma all sign with Major League Soccer clubs in America – three of them key players at the Confederations Cup with NZ and the other NZ’s best performer at the Under-20 World Cup. Three of them were playing footy in Europe and the other in Africa. All four chose to move to the USA (or… Canada technically for two of them, but still the MLS).
Four players isn’t quite enough of an invasion to draw a military response… but still. Bevan was based in London with that Nike Academy thing and would’ve had options from all over thanks to the Nike connection. Michael Boxall had a contract extension on the table from SuperSport United and coulda got others in South Africa for sure. Bill Tuiloma? Olympique Marseille are a busy team with a fair bit of money and power. They can sort out another loan move in no time. And as for Stefan Marinovic, he apparently rejected interest from the English Championship to join Vancouver.
FIRST TEAM OPPORTUNITIES
Hard to say what ‘interest’ even means though. Could be that the quartet’s most lucrative options were all the ones they signed. Plus first team opportunities mean plenty and Mike Boxall has been starting with Minnesota from the first available moment. Not so much for the other three with Marinovic sitting on the bench his first chance and Tuiloma being told immediately that he’d be splitting time between the firsts and seconds.
Bevan, meanwhile, is a regular 90 minute player for the Whitecaps but it’s the Whitecaps 2 team, where he plays alongside Francis de Vries and Deklan Wynne – FDV joining through the draft and Wynne signing separately. US-born Kip Colvey also found his way into the MLS through the draft with San Jose Earthquakes.
All goods. Those are similar opportunities to what they’d get elsewhere and it’s clear that the MLS is closing the gap on other professional leagues. Hey, it’s 2017 and it’s a global game. If the money is there and the quality of play is there then why the hell not? Especially when you’ve seen others from your obscure country getting chances that are hard to find elsewhere. It’s a step down from the Premier League or La Liga but the MLS is definitely a couple rungs up from the A-League.
KIWI x USA FOOTBALL HISTORY
Let’s not forget that New Zealanders in the MLS is not a new thing. It all began back in the day with the great man Simon Elliott. Also known as the originator. Also known for his stunning hair. He was the set-piece taking midfield maestro for the LA Galaxy long before David Beckham rolled into town. Then Ryan Nelsen got drafted by DC United (fourth overall) and went on to make two MLS Teams of the Season in his four campaigns there before buggering off to Blackburn Rovers where he was never heard from again (jokes).
Duncan Oughton played for Columbus Crew for several seasons. Andy Boyens jumped around a few different clubs. Cameron Knowles and Jarrod Smith each had single seasons in the top flight there in America. Tony Lochhead had two different single-season spells. When Ryan Nelsen retired to manager Toronto FC he brought in Jeremy Brockie on loan. Dan Keat and Mike Boxall were both taken in the 2011 Supplemental Draft. Not to mention all the other jokers who have played and coached in the lower levels in America.
Not gonna roll off the full list of them (or even try to compile one) but the Portland Timbers make for a curious case. It’s the Timbers who won the title a couple seasons ago with Jake Gleeson sitting on the bench in the final having been recalled from the second team. It’s the Timbers which soon into the following season saw Gleeson emerge to win the number one gig. It’s the Timbers who just signed Bill Tuiloma.
Back in the day a teenaged Jake Gleeson had trials with Everton and Manchester United. He even got a second trial with Everton but neither ended up as contract offers despite some positive recommendations. A couple years later he trialled with Seattle Sounders and then signed a contract with Portland Timbers, who at that time were in the USL but were on the verge of dissolving into a new MLS expansion team in Portland, which would also be named the Timbers.
Cameron Knowles played for that USL version of the Timbers. Aaran Lines spent a season there in 2005. However it was Gavin Wilkinson that left the most indelible mark, playing 124 times for the team over six seasons and moving into the coaching ranks at the end of that, having been player/assistant coach in his last two terms. He was head coach of the Timbers when they signed Gleeson and became the technical director when they joined the MLS. He still holds that role today, having signed a long-term extension in 2016.
Now he’s signed Bill Tuiloma – you think that’s a coincidence? Wilkinson’s too good at his job to bring in an international player who isn’t of the required ability but if there’s a kiwi available who is then he’s probably at least heard of him, being a former All White himself and all. Caleb Porter, Timbers head coach, specifically mentioned that Wilkinson had recommended Tui to him (“Gavin presented the option of getting a young player, a guy that can give us depth…”).
Side Note – The All Whites played USA last October, drawing 1-1. Michael Boxall, Stefan Marinovic and Bill Tuiloma all played. The All Whites U20s were knocked out of the last U20 World Cup (in June) by USA and Myer Bevan played that one.
PUTTING IN A GOOD WORD
Gavin Wilkinson isn’t the only one making a positive recommendation or two either. The Vancouver Whitecaps, home of four separate kiwi footballers, have New Zealand’s Andy Peat as their ‘Head of Video Analysis’. In an article about that transfer on the Whitecaps website the WC manager Carl Robinson went on about how the Confederations Cup had “put him in the spotlight” and how vastly they’d been scouting him going back several months. There was also this line:
“Robinson also received positive reviews on Marinovic from New Zealand’s U-20 head coach Darren Bazeley, a former teammate of Robinson’s at Wolverhampton Wanderers, and West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper coach Jonathan Gould – son of former Welsh manager Bobby Gould.”
As for Mike Boxall, the wider Aotearoa football community didn’t really help him find a home in Minnesota but having spent a little time in the MLS back in 2011-12 he’d already made a few friends. He’s spoken about “unfinished business” and that’s not all he’s spoken about…
Star Tribune: “For his part, Boxall said he spoke to former teammates who had worked with Heath and assistant coach Mark Watson who all thought he would be a good fit with them. Boxall also knew goalkeeping coach Marius Rovde from Vancouver. He even had a familiar face on the roster in forward Christian Ramirez. The pair overlapped for two seasons in college playing at UC Santa Barbara from 2009-10.”
That and coach Jeff Heath is a good mate of Anthony Hudson’s, which clearly helped as well.
Need it be said that almost every kiwi MLS player has had a kiwi connection or an extensive college career that’s helped them get where they got to? It’s who you know, after all.
KIWIS IN COLLEGE
With Kip Colvey chilling out on a development loan and Wynne, de Vries and Bevan with the VW2 team… for a few seconds there Jake Gleeson was again the only New Zealander in Major League Soccer. But he was far from the only New Zealander in top flight US footy. Abby Erceg is a National Women’s Soccer League champion from 2016 (captaining the team in the process). Katie Bowen is over there with FC Kansas City. More recently Rebekah Stott (Seattle Reign FC) and Rosie White (Boston Breakers) have joined the ranks.
The NWSL as it is has only existed since 2012 so that’s a fair bit of kiwi injection right there. As that league has grown and expanded they’ve opened the door to more foreign players and we’re seeing New Zealanders getting a run, just as has happened in the MLS lately.
But way more New Zealanders than make the MLS or NWSL still got their start in America thanks to the US college system. It’s already been mentioned how college is a pathway to the draft and, for lack of a better phrase, a networking opportunity ahead of a career in football. There’s also another factor there though: the college system is a really handy buffer between amateur footy in Aotearoa and professional footy elsewhere. Betsy Hassett spoke pretty insightfully about this in an interview with Vice recently.
Betsy Hassett: “[In New Zealand], if you're a girl and you finish high school but weren't quite good enough for the national team yet, there is a huge gap. You aren't good enough for the national team, but you're too good for the league in New Zealand. There's kind of nowhere to go – so [the United States college system] is the perfect place to bridge that gap. At one point, New Zealand Football was discouraging it quite a bit for the Under-20 girls. Back in the day, they wanted everyone back in New Zealand training for the World Cup and what not. That was pretty bad of them. You can go to America and play at a way better level than you can in New Zealand, and get a degree at the same time. I can be a really great thing for girls to do.”
Consider you’re a talented soccer player in NZ, aged around 18. Are you good enough to have gotten a Premier League academy call? No. Will you be good enough to make a career out of this sport? Maybe. So you go to college and progress that career while also getting a degree to fall back on. Male or female, for a nation with only one professional team it’s long served a rather crucial purpose. No surprises then that New Zealanders are getting ingrained in the US football system.
INTERNATIONAL PLAYER FLEXIBILITY
Part of the thing with the MLS is that they don’t necessarily have the homegrown base to launch from that other leagues in Europe, for example, all do. So part of their thing has always been trying to bridge the gap between the international model of football and the traditional, erm, American Sports Experience. So they have a college draft for one thing. That’s how Kip Colvey and Francis de Vries got into things. They also have no promotion or relegation between divisions, although there’s been talk of it being implemented in the future. Plus, similar to leagues like those in Germany and Portugal, they let reserve teams compete in lower divisions.
There’s a cap on foreign players but it isn’t like they do in the A-League – where every team has five available international spots. In the MLS there are 176 places for registered foreign players and they’re divided up evenly between all the franchises… except there’s no limit to how many one team can have because those roster spots are tradeable. That’s what Vancouver did in order to acquire Stefan Marinovic – they swapped a bunch of cash for an extra international spot.
That took the Whitecaps up to 10 international players… although Deybi Flores is away on loan so he doesn’t count right now towards their registered figure. The New England Revolution have three open international places, most teams have either one or none. It’s mid-season after all.
So international players are at a premium… why are New Zealanders suddenly in demand? Well, obviously because New Zealand is producing a golden era of football talent, buddy. But also there’s a trick around this. You don’t count towards the international quota if you fall under the ‘Homegrown International’ banner, which pretty much just means that if you’ve been with the club or its academy since before you turned 16 or if you signed your first professional contract with an MLS club (or its affiliate) then ka-ching: Homegrown International Rule invoked. Kip Colvey, Jake Gleeson, Francis de Vries, Deklan Wynne and Myer Bevan: all homegrown internationals. Kip Colvey woulda been anyway because he’s a US citizen.
THE VANCOUVER ALL-WHITECAPS
Special mention has to go to the Whitecaps though. They’ve cultivated a presence of New Zealand footballers that even the Wellington Phoenix would be proud of. All of these other factors have to do with that. They’ve been able to use their connections to bring in kiwis, connections that go back quite deep (guess which club Mike Boxall was drafted by). They’ve manipulated the international roster spot thing nicely and they’ve also picked on of their quartet up via the college draft.
However the Whitecaps also have some extra motivation here. Being from Canada they have that Welly Nix thing about them where they can pick Canadians as homegrown players… but Canadians aren’t that good at football compared to America – same dynamic with Aussie and NZ. FIFA’s stupid rankings have them at 100th in the world, not all that far ahead of New Zealand’s 122 (although we went to the Confeds Cup, so ha!).
So Vancouver take extra pride in their youth system. They also have to be a bit creative about how they find new players. Did you know that back in 2012 they trialled Roy Krishna? Or that his Fijian compatriot Alvin Singh made a similar impression on Whitecaps scouts a year earlier? How about the fact that there are five Fijian players heading over for try-outs right now with the Caps?
Unsurprisingly Fijian legend Ivor Evans was instrumental in all of those opportunities. He played for a decade with the Vancouver 86ers, which would be renamed ‘Whitecaps’ in 2001. His son also had a youth contract with the Caps once upon a time. You can fit that info into a few of the above categories, can’t ya?
This is without even mentioning the tale of Ben McKendry who is a local boy from Vancouver and a Canadian international – thus one of the prouder products of the Whitecaps system (even if they just sent him out on loan for more experience) - … but he’s also a dude who holds dual NZ citizenship and coulda chosen to play for the All Whites instead. Still could until he plays in a FIFA tournament match, actually, although he seems satisfied with the maple leaf thing instead.
Why has there been this sudden burst of All Whites signing for MLS clubs, then? Lots of reasons. No reason at all. It just kinda happens. Probably the main thing is that the clubs wanted them and in the cutthroat world of professional football that goes a long way. As long as they’re playing there’ll be no arguments from over this direction.
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