There was a point, not so long ago, when Portland Timbers defender Bill Tuiloma found himself on a bench at the Stade Vélodrome, decked out in a Olympique de Marseille kit, listening to over 69,000 fans scream before one of the biggest matches in European soccer: Le Classique – the Ligue 1 derby between l’OM and Paris Saint-Germain.
Just over one week after his 20th birthday, Tuiloma found himself in a squad amidst Andre-Pierre Gignac, Dmitri Payet and Andre Ayew, as well as his team’s biggest personality, legendary head coach Marcelo Bielsa. And down the touchline? PSG’s traveling team included Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, David Luiz and Thiago Silva – headliners for one of Europe’s newest big-spending juggernauts.
They were some of the biggest names in the sport, all in one of the world’s best venues, playing in one of the iconic derbies in the European game. And there he was, a vagabond defender from Beach Haven, New Zealand, chilling at ground zero.
“It was just …,” he pauses, unable to find the words before choosing something humble. “It was definitely something you would want to check out.”
That April 5, 2015 day was the culmination of a six-year journey for Tuiloma, one that had initially taken from his home in the Auckland suburb of Beach Haven to a small soccer academy in Christchurch. From there, Tuiloma moved to Los Angeles before hopping around Europe, hoping to find a job in the sport. Come 2013, an 18-year-old Tuiloma was crossing a Europe, going from Brussels to Spain, London to France because of a love he’d developed in his church league back home.
“When I was a little kid, dad gave me a bouncy ball, and I start kicking,” Tuiloma says, explaining how a boy from a rugby-crazed nation ended up falling in love with soccer. “Everybody realized I like to kick the ball and run, so, as I grew up, we had church games. I was the one that always played soccer. I was, early, beating all these other kids that were older than me. It was crazy.”
By the time he was 14 years old, Tuiloma was set on becoming a professional soccer player, so much so he left his family to attend a tiny academy over 460 miles away from his Beach Haven home.
“It’s called Asia Pacific Football Academy,” Tuiloma remembers. “It was a little academy that started with seven players with full scholarships … It all started there.”
Asia Pacific took care of all of his education as well as his athletic development, and in 2012, the academy also forged Tuiloma’s first link to MLS.
“They had a connection with a guy that works in America,” he explains, simply enough. Somehow, this small academy on the South Island of New Zealand had a connection with MLS’ premier club, the LA Galaxy – a team which, at the time, had the likes of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane on its books.
“[Asia Pacific] got me with [their connection],” Tuiloma says, “started talking about me going to LA, and we started training from there.”
Still only 17, Tuiloma made the leap to the United States, quickly finding himself attending games at StubHub Center, where soldout crowds of 27,000 would turn out to cheer one of the world’s biggest stars.
The reality of life in LA, though, made it very unlikely that he would be able to link up with the Galaxy for the long term. The franchise had yet to start its USL team, LA Galaxy II, and would have to dedicate an international spot to sign him to the MLS roster.
That’s when Bill Tuiloma, world traveler, really emerged.
“I did a lot of traveling after Los Angeles,” he recalls. “I went to Brussels, to Spain, to England, as well. Being in the cold, waiting for two-hour train rides when, outside, it’s minus-10 degrees. I couldn’t feel my toes … It was a crazy time, for me.”
Having just turned 18, Tuiloma was only four years removed from that initial jump to Christchurch. From seven-player academies to frozen toes in England, the New Zealand international-to-be was already living a lifetime in soccer, one that nearly saw him sign in London with Queens Park Rangers. Still months shy of his senior national team debut, though, Tuiloma was unable to get a work permit in England, seemingly condemning him to continue to gallivant around Europe in hopes of a job.
The connection with QPR, though, proved fortuitous, with an unlikely player greasing the wheels for what would become a dream movie. The previous August, QPR midfielder Joey Barton had been sent on an unlikely loan to Olympique de Marseille, a deal that established a connection between the English and French clubs. When Tuiloma couldn’t secure a place with QPR, he was referred to l’OM, who had him in for a look.
“One week before the  Under-20 World Cup in Turkey, I trained, played a game, then went back to New Zealand,” Tuiloma remembers, marveling that he ended up in France “because of one player,” Barton. “I had to get ready for the World Cup, but three days before I was going to fly out, I got an email and a call saying Marseille wants to sign you to a contract.”
Over the next five years, Tuiloma would walk the same halls that helped launch Didier Drogba. He would see Samir Nasri playing for Manchester City and know, just five years before, the French international was occupying the same locker rooms.
He got to meet Patrice Evra, play with Steve Mandanda, and on that April day in 2015 when Bielsa chose him in his 18 for Le Classique, he was on the same bench as talents like Michy Batshuayi (now with Borussia Dortmund), Lucas Ocampos (formerly of Milan), Nicolas N’Koulou (who has played for Monaco and Lyon) and current LA Galaxy star Romain Alessandrini.
“It was amazing,” he remembers. “I stayed there almost five years. I had a great experience …
“I literally knew nothing about Marseille when I got there. Then you look up and see Drogba, Nasri playing. That’s the only French team that’s won a Champions League. It was such a crazy road to get there.”
Eight months ago, Tuiloma’s crazy road landed him in a new home, forcing him to traverse the world, again, and retrace the MLS steps he originally took five years before. This time, though, instead of flying into the Galaxy’s academy system, he was making his way to the Pacific Northwest, joining the Portland Timbers shortly after appearing for New Zealand at the Confederations Cup in Russia.
“It was close to the end of the season, when I came to Portland, but I had to give everything,” he remembers, “because I only had six months on my contract. In my head, I was thinking about getting my next contract, so every training, every game, I played as hard as possible. I ended up scoring a few goals, and I ended up being the captain for the USL.”
If second-team captain seems like a strange role for somebody who, just months before, was on the books at Marseille, Tuiloma doesn’t let on. Any weekend, the 23-year-old can turn on the television, watch whichever high-level European game happens to be on, and see players that he played or trained with from his days in Ligue 1. Yet come the end of 2017, Tuiloma was wearing an armband in USL.
“It was a crazy experience, and I loved every single bit of it, last season,” he says, albeit with an eye on first-term time. “I’m ready to kick it off again, this season, and try to [earn minutes] with the team.”
Last Saturday, Tuiloma made his MLS debut playing the full 90 at center back against FC Dallas. With the team down to 10 men for the final minutes and holding on to a 1-1 scoreline, Tuiloma shined, making nine clearances, two ball recoveries and one interception to help the Timbers earn a hard-earned point on the road.
Despite his drastic change, Tuiloma does see parallels between his former place in France and his new home in Portland. Providence Park may not hold 69,000, but in one respect, it does have a familiar feel.
“It’s not the same as Europe, or France, but in Portland, the fans definitely are crazy,” Tuiloma says. “The atmosphere at the stadium is ridiculous. It’s like a smaller version of Marseille’s stadium. It was good see that.”
Having spent five years in Ligue 1, the craziest part of Tuiloma’s journey may be over, but with his move to Portland, that journey may have finally landed him in a stable home. Though he’s had to retrace some steps, the 24-time international is still only 23 years old. His best days are still ahead of him, days which may be played out in green and gold.