Late in the Portland Timbers' May 9 match against the Seattle Sounders, Bill Tuiloma approached a free kick 27 yards from goal and struck it perfectly, giving Timbers fans a moment of consolation at the end of a loss to the Sounders and opening some eyes.
Whipping that ball past Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, Tuiloma showed another skill in his soccer toolbox, a still-expanding collection that has helped the New Zealander become a valuable member of the Timbers.
A central defender with experience in midfield, Tuiloma is a bit of a Swiss army knife who gives coach Giovanni Savarese lineup flexibility. But this season, Tuiloma has made his mark in the middle of the backline, where he has been a regular presence either to the left of Larrys Mabiala or to the right of Dario Zuparic.
"Bill is a player with so many great attributes. Very talented in so many ways. Technically gifted. Fast. Strong. He needed to make sure that his game was a complete game every time he stepped on the field," Savarese said. "Now, his maturity has allowed him to be able to understand how to manage games and to fulfill all his capabilities that he has as a very talented player."
Competition has called Tuiloma since he was a young lad in New Zealand. If there was a contest, he wanted a part of it.
Basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball and, of course, cricket — if a game was on he wanted to play. He can remember first kicking a soccer ball at age 3, and particularly enjoyed volleyball.
But Tuiloma's competitive juices were tested as his 18th birthday approached. He'd focused on soccer since age 14 — an easy decision, he said. But when a long list of tryouts at soccer clubs around Europe ended without a contract offer, the vagabond nature of traveling from one club to the next looking to break into a team got old.
A tryout with London's Queen Park Rangers was almost the end of the line.
Tuiloma played well and QPR wanted to find a way to sign him, but immigration restrictions ended that avenue.
"I was obviously gutted," Tuiloma said. "After a long, long journey and come to QPR and them saying that they enjoyed me, they knew they want to sign me — but it just couldn't happen."
Even an offer for a tryout with one of France's biggest clubs, Olympic de Marsellie, didn't excite him. He planned to return home.
"I was I was very done. In my head I did not want to go anywhere. I just wanted to go home. Mentally, physically, just had no more gas in the tank."
But, after sleeping on his decision at the urging of his agent, Tuiloma went to southern France.
His week there turned into the break he needed.
Eight years later, the 26-year-old is entering the prime of his career and is an important defender for the Timbers.
Tuiloma came to Portland four years ago this month looking for a fresh opportunity, following the path of another New Zealander, Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson, himself a central defender looking for a new opportunity after playing in Ireland, came to Portland in 2001 when the Timbers were reborn and joined the A-League.
Even when Tuiloma was playing mostly with the Marseille reserves, as a member of New Zealand's national team, he certainly was on Wilkinson's radar and he took the chance on Portland.
"I wanted to try something different — see where I could improve and get more games, get my name out there," Tuiloma said. " I decided Portland Timbers is the one. So I came here and just worked each day to get to where I'm at right now."
Tuiloma spent the second half of 2017 playing for T2, Portland's second-division developmental club. But a year later appeared in four playoff matches as the Timbers reached the 2018 MLS Cup final — an indication that he had earned the faith of then-first-year coach Savarese.
Still, Tuiloma's minutes often came when teammates were out of the lineup. Rather than get frustrated, Tuiloma said he just kept his focus on improving, on learning from the Timbers midfielders and defenders and on being consistent in training, knowing that his chance would come.
Entering the Wednesday, July 21, home match against LAFC, Tuiloma has played in 13 of Portland's 16 matches across all competitions in 2021 and is part of a three-man rotation at central defender with Mabiala and Zuparic.
When Mabiala was injured early in that May match against Seattle, Tuiloma was ready. His goal in that match was one example of how he's turned extended playing time into improved confidence.
"I like playing center back. You have everything in front of you," Tuiloma said.
He enjoys reading the game, instructing teammates, making line-breaking passes and the physicality of the position.
"I love the physical part. It's fun. It's good competition," he said. "Strikers, they do not like it when they have centerbacks right behind them, pushing them, tackling them. They don't enjoy it at all. So (being physical) is a good thing."
Tuiloma's technical ability also is a good thing. He is a central defender who can take space on the dribble or make the pass that turns a defensive moment into an attacking opportunity.
"That's a good thing to have and in your locker, to be able to dribble past lines or making those key passes to eliminate two three players," he said.
Tuiloma has scored one regular-season goal in each of his four MLS seasons. Usually, centerbacks' goals come on the end of corner kicks and free kicks, but his free kick against Seattle was another example of Tuiloma's versatility.
He has taken a couple more free kicks since that goal, but on a team with Diego Valeri, Tuiloma understands chances at free kicks won't come often. He did take them regularly while playing in France.
"I'm just gonna keep practicing and gain that confidence of taking stepping up and taking free kicks," he said.
Tuiloma, an only child with cousins he considers brothers, has not been back to New Zealand since before the start of the 2020 season. COVID-19 meant no traveling home in the off-season.
In nine years of professional soccer, Tuiloma's been away from New Zealand more than he's been home.
"It's something that I'm used to now. We always keep in contact on the phone. So as long as they're OK and healthy, I'm fine."
The pandemic also has delayed the qualifying process for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in the Oceanic Football Confederation, where New Zealand competes. To reach the World Cup, New Zealand must win a regional tournament, now pushed to January 2022, then win an international playoff next June.
"I just want to be ready and set for when I get the call up for qualifying games for the World Cup. That's we have our eyes set on, the World Cup," Tuiloma said.
For now, his focus is squarely on pushing for trophies in Portland.
"Still working hard. Still things I need to work on to improve my game and become stronger," Tuiloma said. "My goal is to win a trophy at this club — one or two or three."
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