Villyan Bijev has the soccer ball on a string. That’s how the Republic FC midfielder makes it look, at least.
While Cameron Iwasa has set new club records in goals (16), it’s Bijev either helping set up Iwasa or putting added pressure on the defense by creating scoring chances.
“Dribbling is definitely is my strength,” said Bijev. “Last year, when I finished the season on loan (from Portland Timbers 2) we played a 4-2-2 (four defenders, two midfielders, two forwards) and I wasn’t as far forward. But this year, I’m playing a lot more forward in our 4-3-3 with basically three strikers, and it suits me better.”
Bijev and Republic FC secured the franchise’s fifth consecutive playoff berth and home-field advantage for the first round of the USL playoffs Oct. 20 at Papa Murphy’s Park. It’s likely that match will be against the Timbers 2. But first, Sacramento (18-7-8) hosts the Las Vegas Lights FC Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the regular-season finale.
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“If we play (in the playoffs) like we’ve been lately, then we have a really good chance,” Bijev said. “We’re getting guys healthy, and starting to put some pieces together now.”
Bijev (pronounced BEE-jev) has dual citizenship between his native Bulgaria and America. Bijev was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1993 and moved to Fresno in 1998 when his parents received student VISAs to attend Fresno State. He and his younger brother, Kokie, “went along for the ride,” he said.
“It was a different culture for them, something totally different,” Bijev said of his parents. “The travel ban was lifted by the Russians in 1991, but you could only take so much money with you. It was an opportunity to study abroad and learn new things. The plan was to stay for two years on the VISAs, but those turned into work VISAs and we’ve been here ever since.”
Bijev said he barely remembers what life was like in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. His only clear memory was accompanying his mother and grandmother to a market. His first name, Villyan, is a mashup of his maternal grandmother’s name – Villeta – and his paternal grandmother – Anka. His grandfather is his last living grandparent, he said, and still lives in a small suburb of Sofia.
Bijev said he barely knew any English words when he started kindergarten but soon his talent on the soccer pitch became apparent. By age 11, Bijev was a top talent on a local travel team competing against the best age-group players in California. By 15, he played for Cal Odyssey, an academy with ties to the U.S. national team. By 17, Bijev was scoring hat tricks in a single half during an under-18 national team camp and was invited to travel to Israel for a tournament. He and his family had just become U.S. citizens.
By 18, and newly graduated from Clovis North High School, Bijev had planned on playing soccer on scholarship at the University of Washington. But in July 2011, he was invited to trial for the Liverpool U-18s. In just two preseason friendlies, Bijev scored five goals and signed with the English Premier League stalwarts.
The day he was signed it was announced he was loaned to Fortuna Dusseldorf of the Bundesliga because he couldn’t get a work permit from the British government, he said.
“My time in Germany was a huge eye opener,” Bijev said. “Here I am, just graduated from high school, just left the academy, and I’m playing professionally in Germany with guys who had been pros almost as long as I’d been alive. It was intense.”
Bijev and Liverpool parted ways at the end of the 2013-14 season, and after a stint at Slavia Sofia in the Bulgarian top division, he signed with Cherno More Varna, another top Bulgarian team, and helped Cherno win the 2015 Bulgarian Cup.
Bijev returned home to Fresno in 2016 believing that he’d done enough to earn a contract with a Major League Soccer team. The Portland Timbers signed him, but immediately sent him to the Timbers 2 USL side where he scored eight goals in 29 appearances. He also led the USL in assists with 10 and made the USL All-League First Team.
He led the Timbers 2 with seven goals in 2017 in a terrible season that saw T2 go 3-23-6 and finish last in the USL. He signed a contract with Sacramento in the offseason with a club option for 2019.
“I loved the city and the people were great,” Bijev said of Portland. “But I didn’t want a third year playing with one team’s second squad and got more structure with Sacramento right away, plus it was close to home.”
Bijev provided instant support in the middle for Republic FC, who were sorely missing the playmaking ability of Danny Barrera, who had broken his leg six weeks earlier.
Republic FC went through a major rebuilding shuffle in the offseason, firing head coach and technical director Paul Buckle, hiring Simon Elliott as his successor and letting Barrera and most of the roster go. But Sacramento welcomed back native son Iwasa as its striker and soon he and Bijev were connecting on the pitch.
“We like players who can play multiple positions and areas on the field,” Elliott said. “Where I see a lot of improvement from Villyan this season is without the ball, how he gets himself into position to be a threat. He’s sharpened his focus and I expect him to do great things for us in the playoffs.”
Iwasa leads the team in shots (90), goals (16) and assists (six). Bijev is second in shots (77), tied for second in goals (five) with Christian Eissele and tied for second in assists (five) with Jure Matjasic. Bijev leads the team in chances created with 54. A chance corresponds to a shot whether it’s on target or not — a key stat for a midfielder.
“He’s super talented and some of the stuff he can do on the ball in one-versus-one situations is just amazing,” Iwasa said. “He prefers to get the ball in isolated situations where he can use his dribbling ability. If he plays on the left side he can cut and shoot, and if he’s on the right side I can expect a nice service.”