Debuts define eventful week

It’s been another eventful week for New Zealand’s overseas-based professionals with several players making their debuts for new clubs, others set to take their first steps on foreign shores and a couple picking up badly-timed injuries.

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Leading the way on the debut front were Stefan Marinovic and James Musa, who are both part of the All Whites squad to take on Solomon Islands next month but have important club matters to attend to before then after making their Major League Soccer (MLS) bows in the United States. Goalkeeper Marinovic, who added to his growing reputation with a string of fine performances at the FIFA Confederations Cup, signed for the Vancouver Whitecaps soon after his impressive exploits in Russia but had to wait until last Sunday to make his first appearance against New England Revolution. The Kiwi stopper looked comfortable in the opening period, making a couple of saves and racing off his line to cut out a through ball but things began to go off script early in the second half. Marinovic took a boot to the face and was left to pick the ball out of his net soon after as the Whitecaps fell to a 1-0 defeat.

Musa’s maiden outing for Sporting Kansas City likewise ended in disappointment and by the same scoreline as Seattle Sounders took home all three points. The one-cap All White had been starring for Swope Park Rangers – and feeder team to Kansas who play in the United Soccer League (USL) – but was handed an MLS contract just hours before being thrust into the spotlight for his debut. Despite finding himself in the starting line-up so quickly, Musa performed well first up and nearly got on the scoresheet with a well-struck shot from just outside the box. A whirlwind few days for the 25-year-old was rounded off in memorable fashion when he was called up to Anthony Hudson’s New Zealand squad as a replacement for Tommy Smith, who picked up a hamstring injury in training for English Championship club Ipswich Town.

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Another member of the All Whites squad for those upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifying matches was also looking to make a good early impression for his new club. But Marco Rojas had to make do with a place on the bench initially as SC Heerenveen pocketed a point in a thrilling 3-3 away draw against Groningen in the Dutch Eredivisie. The ‘Kiwi Messi’ came on in the 72nd minute with Heerenveen holding a 2-1 lead and made the most of his time, hitting a shot on target and then having a hand in his side’s third goal, cutting in from the left and playing the ball inside for Morten Thorsby to tuck away.

Former All White Steven Old also had to be content with a debut off the bench – coming on in the 77th minute of Morecambe’s 1-1 draw at Lincoln City in the English League Two – but Tyler Boyd has been playing a fuller part for CD Tondela in Portugal. The former Wellington Phoenix winger has impressed during pre-season for his new top-flight loan side and earned a starting berth in a cup game away to Vitoria Setubal. In a bad-tempered affair, Tondela succumbed 1-0 and Boyd was booked in injury time but kept his place in the team for a 1-1 draw against Feirense in the league opener. Up next were giants Porto, who earned a 1-0 win with Boyd entering the fray as a 57th-minute substitute.

Joining the aforementioned Kiwis in making debuts will soon be several youngsters in the United States with New Zealand’s mini footballing invasion of America continuing at college level. Wellington Phoenix products Ben Mata and Izak Papa have both signed up with Missouri State University while former Hamilton Wanderers player Daniel Edwards is looking to make an impact for Marshall University. Missouri coach Michael Seabolt believes he’s landed a coup in securing the services of Papa and Mata, the latter of whom captained New Zealand at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup. “Ben is a strong defender, we are confident he can help lead our back line and shut down the opponent,” Seabolt says. “He is also a technical player and will be strong in possession and starting attacks.” Also on the move is Johanna Hamblett, who starred for the Canterbury United Pride in the National Women’s League before heading to Mississippi State University last year but is now transferring to Colorado College.

All those competing in the college system will be aiming to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Jake Gleeson, who has firmly established himself as a leading goalkeeper in the MLS with the Portland Timbers. The 27-year-old has been in fine form recently but had that run abruptly interrupted just 18 minutes into Portland’s clash with Toronto, which eventually ended in a 4-1 humbling. Gleeson exited the match early on after suffering an injury and the Timbers clearly missed him as there was no score when he departed. Despite only being on the park for such a short time, Gleeson still managed to get an entry into the MLS Save of the Week competition after diving at full stretch to his left to beat away a perfectly-placed free kick. Timbers team mate Bill Tuiloma has been a regular feature for the club’s second string since arriving in Portland and played for that team again in a 1-0 loss to Sacramento Republic in the USL. Tuiloma lined up alongside Jack Barmby – the son of former England international Nick Barmby – in midfield and nearly got on the scoresheet with a long-distance shot that fizzed past the woodwork.

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Also in the USL, Myer Bevan, Deklan Wynne and Francis de Vries were all in action for Vancouver Whitecaps 2 against their counterparts from the Seattle Sounders but it was a far from memorable day for the Kiwi contingent. De Vries again took the captain’s armband but presided over a 3-0 defeat and the misery was complete when Bevan – who recently celebrated his first inclusion in an All Whites squad – received a straight red card late on. Meanwhile, Kip Colvey was included in the match day squad by MLS outfit the San Jose Earthquakes in the semi-finals of the US Open Cup against Sporting Kansas City but did not make it off the bench as his side went out on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

In the women’s game in the States, former Football Ferns captain Abby Erceg came up against Rebekah Stott’s Seattle Reign for the second time in just over a week and again came out on the winning side. Erceg played a beautiful pass up to Lynn Williams to create an early goal-scoring chance but the spurned opportunity did not prove costly as the Courage went on to claim a 2-1 victory. Elsewhere in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), Rosie White wasn’t able to follow up her stunning goal-scoring exploits of the previous week as the Boston Breakers drew 2-2 with Washington Spirit. White did have a sight on goal from a header but couldn’t get her effort on target. Katie Bowen’s FC Kansas City had more luck in a 1-0 win over Houston Dash – their first three pointer since late May – but the Football Ferns midfielder was only involved for the final 25 minutes.

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In England, a fit-again Winston Reid kicked off another Premier League season with West Ham United but it was an opening to forget as the Hammers could not match an outstanding performance from Manchester United and were soundly beaten 4-0, the home side’s new star striker Romelu Lukaku scoring twice. It was a milestone moment for the All Whites skipper nonetheless as he played his 150th game in the top flight. One step down in the Championship, Chris Wood is still the subject of intense transfer speculation with Premier League outfit Burnley the latest to be strongly linked with the Kiwi goal-getter. He was not able to find the net in his most recent outing against Fulham though, seeing a one-on-one effort saved before not quite managing to get on the end of a cross late on. The scoreless stalemate meant Leeds drew a blank for the second time in four days. Outside of the big leagues, Max Crocombe turned 24 last week and celebrated his birthday with a pair of wins in the National League North, 2-0 over Telford United and 2-1 against Stockport County. Things didn’t go as well for Rory Fallon, who came on as a late substitute in Torquay United’s 4-2 loss to Boreham Wood.

Over in mainland Europe, there was plenty of positive news to go with Rojas’ contribution in the Netherlands as Ryan Thomas played a key role in PEC Zwolle’s 4-2 win over Roda JC, for whom All Whites legend Ivan Vicelich played over 120 matches. Playing as part of a midfield three, Thomas was bright throughout and hit a defence-splitting long pass for Mustafa Saymak to score his side’s third goal. Michael den Heijer was meanwhile taking the first steps of his professional career after signing a two-year contract with NEC Nijmegen in the second-tier Eerste Divisie. NEC were relegated from the highest level of Dutch football last season, during which the former Auckland City player starred for the youth team, and the club’s hierarchy believe the 21-year-old has huge potential. “Michael has proven he can develop with us over the coming years and will therefore get the opportunity to do so,” technical director Remco Oversier says. “With his physical strength, his enormous winning mentality and his high degree of intelligence, signing his first professional contract is a reward for what he has shown at NEC to date. Now it’s up to him to force himself into the first team.”

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