BEAVERTON, Ore. – Bill Tuiloma’s soccer journey has taken him across the world, from New Zealand to California, to Europe and back to the United States. One commonality in all those spots, though, is not being guaranteed playing time, a struggle that defines the first years of any young player’s career.
This preseason, though, that theme seems to have taken on a different form, with Tuiloma jockeying for position on a Timbers' central defender depth chart that also includes Julio Cascante, Modou Jadama, Larrys Mabiala and the recently acquired Claude Dielna. That logjam, though, is less of an obstacle for Tuiloma than a mere reality of his job.
“There’s going to be competition,” the 23-year-old defender said after his team's second practice of preseason, describing the team’s current depth as “normal,” in his world.
“Everyone’s fighting for their positions in the XI …," he continued. "Having Claude in is another great, experienced player. I can also look at him and ask him questions on how I can improve in my game, in situations that are tougher areas for a center back.”
That’s the flip side to Portland’s positional battles, one that got more attention when Liam Ridgewell was on the roster. The former Timbers captain was recognized as somebody whose experience could be leveraged by the team’s other defenders, a virtue that was apparent within and outside the field’s lines.
In players like Dielna and Mabiala, though, there are still lessons to be conveyed, something that should help nurture Tuiloma, Cascante (25) and Jadama (24).
“It’s a competition,” Tuiloma explained, “but I’m still young. I’m 23 years old, and I’ve got a lot more to learn in my game … That’s why I have to be prepared for whenever I go in and show them what I’ve got.”
That approach helped Tuiloma enjoy a breakthrough season in 2018, one which capped his first 713 regular-season minutes in Major League Soccer with four appearances (282 minutes) in the MLS Cup playoffs. He was on the field as his team earned a 2-1 lead in leg one of their conference semifinal against Seattle Sounders FC, and he later enjoyed a successful second start at Children’s Mercy Park when the Timbers came back to eliminate Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference final.
“It was the best season that I’ve had throughout my career,” he conceded, admitting 2018 felt “a lot better” than his debut half-season in Portland the year before. “Hopefully, I can get better and stronger this year.”
That goal was part of Tuiloma's focus this offseason, while he was back home. Though he, like his teammates, enjoyed some needed time away from the field, Tuiloma’s offseason training regimen was also a priority, with the New Zealand international admitting, “you have to look after yourself in the offseason and prepare yourself for preseason.”
That preparation, according to Tuiloma, has him set to meet with the roster’s challenges head-on, and while competition may not be new to Tuiloma, he’s as ready as ever to deal with it.
“I’ve prepared myself well and came back here pretty strong,” he said. “I’ve just come to improve and get a lot stronger in my game."