Bill Tuiloma, Timbers vs. RSL, 8.31.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

After steady ascent, Bill Tuiloma making his mark with the Timbers

There are multiple factors to consider when evaluating the success of a Major League Soccer player signing, with luck being perhaps the main factor. Player identification, scouting, internal development, the opportunities you provide, or the just the relationships you maintain throughout the soccer world – they’re all things to consider when asking why a player has (or hasn’t) worked for a team; or why a player even arrived on your doorstep to begin with. More often than not, multiple factors have to come together to make the relationship work.

That’s the context I use when looking back on July 25, 2017, the day Bill Tuiloma was announced as a Portland Timbers player. At the time, the Christchurch, New Zealand, native had an intriguing resume, one that’d taken him from his home country to Southern California, briefly to England before settling on France’s Mediterranean coast. When a club the stature of French titans Olympique de Marseille is attached to an MLS team’s signing of a 22-year-old, you take a moment to consider his potential.

Two-and-a-half years later, the Timbers have made another investment in that potential, one that seems like a no-brainer after the ascent Tuiloma has enjoyed during his time in Portland. From an initial half-season in the Rose City that saw him transition through Timbers 2, to two seasons with the first team which cast him as a playoff contributor at the end of each run, the now-24-year-old has shown that being a regular in the team’s starting XI is a potential path for him.

That’s why the New Zealand international could, after the announcement of his new contract extension, be a part of Portland’s plans for years to come.

“Bill is an ascending young player who has a very bright future,” team president Gavin Wilkinson said in a statement released Thursday by the club. “He has played his way into becoming a fixture along the back line and we are delighted to secure his services for years to come.”

Consider the progression fueling that view. Over this first four months with the Timbers, Tuiloma didn’t make an MLS appearance, instead collecting 11 starts and 986 minutes at the second level, in the United Soccer League. Come the 2018 season, Tuiloma had emerged as an option for the first team, enjoying an initial campaign under head coach Giovanni Savarese to the tune of 17 appearances, nine starts and 995 minutes between the regular season and playoffs. The 90 minutes he put in during a Conference-clinching win at Sporting Kansas City may have been the highpoint of his first full MLS season.

In one respect, the entire 2019 season was about Tuiloma building on that performance. Having proved he could contribute in the most important moments, Tuiloma put himself position for 22 appearances, 20 starts and 2,007 minutes (again, between regular season and playoffs). Within MLS’ 34-game seasons, those totals may not stand out, but Tuiloma was engaged in a significant positional battle all season. Julio Cascante came out of preseason as the initial, first choice for playing time in central defense to the left of Larrys Mabiala. The Costa Rican would end up making 22 appearances of his own during the season.

By the end of the campaign, though, Tuiloma’s name was in the starting lineups. A late-season injury to Cascante was part of that story, but Tuiloma started 10 of the team’s last 11 matches of the 2019 season, including its playoff game in Utah. It would be too much to suggest that the presence of playing time is also a comment on quality (we’ll get to quality in a moment), but the progression is unquestioned: 2017, an integration year with no MLS playing time; 2018, part-time option and eventually chosen for important starts in the playoffs; 2019, a full-time starter, by year’s end.

“We feel very excited that Bill will continue as part of the Portland Timbers family,” Savarese said of his newly inked player. “He is a defender with a lot of quality who can be versatile. He has worked hard to be an important player and still has the potential to grow.”

His passing percentage was up by over four percent from 2018 to 2019, completing 83.3 percent of his attempts on the season. The number of passes he attempted per 90 minutes climbed by 15 percent, from 33.6 to 38.8. Tuiloma had similar increases for passes that led to shots on goal, per 90 minutes (up 52 percent, to 0.23); shots (up 30 percent, to 1.4); successful dribbles (up 14 percent, to 0.35); tackles (up 97 percent, 1.5); blocked shots (up 26 percent, 1.2); and aerial duels won (up 28 percent. 3.1). Not every measure showed progress, and even some of these measures may lack significance, but in addition to his increased playing time, Tuiloma’s performance across a number of areas showed there may be more growth to come.

That’s an important factor when it comes to this contract. Tuiloma is no longer a young player, though he’s not old, either. He’ll turn 25 in April, so in terms of his physical profile, we can be pretty sure of what Tuiloma is. And to a certain extent, a lot of the technical quality that makes him the most skilled central defender in the team may also be ingrained. Where improvement can come, though, is in the application of those characteristics. Having just crossed the 3,000-minute threshold in MLS, Tuiloma could see more improvement by just getting more time on the field.

With Mabiala and Cascante slated to return for the 2020 season, and Croatian Dario Zuparic added to the squad this offseason, that time on the field is not assured, though nor is Tuiloma’s path confined to that central defender role. The Timbers coaching staff remains intrigued by what Tuiloma can contribute in midfield, where his history as a ball-winner and his skill with long passes give Savarese & Co. a robust, regista option. Likewise, with the backup spot at right back currently unaccounted for on the depth chart, he and Marco Farfan could yet see minutes spelling the team’s first choice, Jorge Moreira.

It’s all the more reason why Tuiloma’s contract extension feels like no-brainer. The progress he’s shown since that July 2017 arrival has been rewarded with opportunity. Add compensation, as well a comfort away from the field, and that’s all player could want. In return, Portland will get to benefit from the next stage of Tuiloma’s career, whether they got here by scouting, development, or something more.

It may have started slow, with Tuiloma not seeing his first time with the MLS Timbers until eight months after his arrival. At this point, though, that start feels like ancient history. As today’s extension shows, Tuiloma has made his mark in Portland.

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