Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
The growth of the USL over the past five seasons has led to not only new teams arriving in the league, but as a result a vast array of new faces to make up those squads. This season alone we’ve seen the impact of newcomers to the league who have come from other domestic clubs like FC Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma, Indy Eleven’s Jack McInerney and North Carolina FC’s Kyle Bekker, or from overseas such as Phoenix Rising FC’s Solomon Asante, Orange County SC’s Thomas Enevoldsen and North Carolina FC’s Daniel Rios.
We’re going to focus on that second group of players this week and look back at five players who arrived from overseas to the USL to make a major impact in their first seasons in the league.
Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
Current Tulsa Roughnecks FC defender Nemanja Vukovic had spent a season with Columbus Crew SC in 2012 but the majority of his career around that stint been spent in Montenegro, where he was playing for OFK Titograd Podgorica in 2013 before becoming a free agent, which allowed Sacramento Republic FC to swoop in and add the experienced center back to its squad for the club’s inaugural season in 2014.
Vukovic had a major impact on the field for Sacramento that season as he played all-but one game – making 30 appearances including the 2014 USL Cup Playoffs – and scored three goals while helping marshal a defense that finished tied for the third-best defensive record in the league that season. For that, he was named USL Defender of the Year in the week leading up to Republic FC’s victory in the 2014 USL Cup.
Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC
Then-OKC Energy FC Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen – who was recently appointed as Hartford Athletic’s first Head Coach – ventured back to his home country as he looked to bolster his squad ahead of the club’s second season in the USL, and got a major payoff in the form of Danni König, who made an immediate impact on the club’s performance throughout the season and was part of one of the more compelling races for the USL Golden Boot in the league’s modern era.
König had made more than 200 professional appearances in Europe by the time his spell with FC Vestsjælland had come to an end at the end of 2014. He scored in just his second game for the club – a memorable 89th-minute winner against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC – and went on to become part of a historic goal chase alongside Louisville City FC’s Matt Fondy that saw both players surpass the USL single-season scoring record of 20 goals by current Minnesota United FC attacking midfielder Kevin Molino. König finished one back of Fondy in the final reckoning with 21 goals, but that was good enough for USL All-League First Team honors at the end of the year.
Photo courtesy Eric Cech / Portland Timbers 2
Having had his family move to the United States from Bulgaria when he was five, Villyan Bijev grew up in Northern California and represented the U.S. U18 National Team before world-renowned Premier League club Liverpool came calling to offer a contract to turn professional at the age of 18. After loan spells in Germany and Norway, Bijev was unable to crack the Liverpool lineup, however, but continued to build his professional career in his native Bulgaria. After a stint with Cherno More in 2015, however, he decided to return to the United States and signed with the Portland Timbers 2 prior to the 2016 season.
Bijev became one of the key figures for T2 in its second season as he led the league in the regular season with 10 assists and contributed eight goals in 29 appearances for the side. Those performances pulled Portland to the verge of a first trip to the USL Cup Playoffs as it took victory in its final five games of the regular season, but a 3-2 victory against Phoenix Rising FC on the final weekend wasn’t quite enough as Orange County SC surged to a 4-0 win against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC to claim the eighth and final playoff berth in the West on goal differential after the sides finished with identical records.
Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
The Tampa Bay Rowdies had previously dipped into the overseas market, making a major splash when former England international midfielder Joe Cole joined the club, but the offseason addition of Bundesliga veteran Marcel Schäfer helped the side scale great heights in its first season in the USL. A legend at VfL Wolfburg – where he had made more than 250 appearances for the club – Schäfer had also made eight appearances for the German national team over the course of his career before arriving in St. Petersburgh, Florida.
Schäfer brought the desired impact to the Rowdies’ midfield, helping the side shift play quickly and retain possession with an 85.9 percent accuracy rate on 48 passes per 90 minutes. His ability to strike the ball from distance also paid major dividends for the Rowdies’ attack as five of his seven goals throughout the regular season and USL Cup Playoffs came from outside the penalty area, but it was his vision and ability to create that shone most as he finished tied for second in the league with 11 assists. Schäfer claimed USL All-League First Team honors for his stellar year with the Rowdies, leading the club to the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2017 USL Cup Playoffs.
Photo courtesy Lori Scholl / Tulsa Roughnecks FC
As Tulsa Roughnecks FC plotted a turnaround from its disappointing 2016 season, it turned to a player in Juan Pablo Caffa who brought a sterling resume with him that included spells playing in both the top flight in his native Argentina and for Real Betis in Spain’s La Liga. Arriving after a season in Ecuador with Universidad Católica to Tulsa after the 2016 season, it signaled a fresh start for the Roughnecks’ franchise, which saw plenty of turnover in its squad that offseason.
Caffa immediately made his presence known, scoring in his first game for the club with one of his patented free kicks and making the kind of plays that helped those around him thrive. Caffa finished second in the USL with 74 chances created for the season while contributing nine goals and eight assists as the Roughnecks claimed their first berth in the USL Cup Playoffs. Those numbers and that achievement earned the Argentine USL All-League Second Team honors, and he’s continued to thrill fans with his astuteness on the field and brilliant free kicks this season as his American adventure has continued with Fresno FC.