Believe it or not, but rookie midfielder Nikola Ilich was the closest thing the Orange County Blues had to an ironman in 2015.
Playing in 27 of the Blues' 28 regular season league games, and 28 of their 30 games across all competitions, Ilich largely flew under the radar around USL but clearly was one of Oliver Wyss' favorites in 2015.
The story surrounding Ilich is one of those that makes you happy to see a guy do well. Ilich participated in an open tryout a year ago, and was one of two players invited to OC's preseason camp. He was the lone survivor to earn a contract with the club, and the former Vanguard University player, who grew up in San Diego's North County, became a fixture in the lineup.
Here were Ilich's statistics in 2015:
|Games Played||Games Started||Minutes||Goals||Assists||Shots||SOG||Yellow Cards||Red Cards|
|USL Regular Season||27||13||1,307||1||0||19||9||2||0|
|U.S. Open Cup||1||1||68||0||0||0||0||0||0|
Now, you'll notice that while Ilich played a lot of games, he only started half of his appearances, and wasn't treated as a 90-minute player when he was a starter. Given the five-substitution rule in USL and the development aspect of the league, the urge to limit players' minutes is pretty common, so not really any indication on Ilich overall.
I think it's pretty clear that Ilich was often brought in to either shore up the midfield when other players got tired, or overall to help "carry the water" in midfield depending on the game state. He displayed a pretty solid all-around game, and while he needs to work on his finishing if he's to develop into a true two-way player, the goal he did score, in a win over the Austin Aztex, was pretty impressive and shows a bit of promise for that side of his game.
Overall, the 23-year-old was tidy in possession and willing to assist in cutting out passing lanes and press on defense. I think he had a fine rookie season, something to build on, but I wouldn't count on him to blossom into a superstar. That's not such a bad thing -- there was a lot of talent on the Blues in 2015, and assuming they can keep a core together, if not improve upon this year's squad, there's certainly a need for players like Ilich to slot into roles, help the group get results and have a few highlights pop up every so often.
The club already announced that Ilich will be back with the team next year, which is certainly good news. Again, Wyss clearly trusted him, and his story shows that good players can still be found in American pro soccer through a variety of methods, including the open tryout. Obviously, that's should prove inspirational for the next crop of players attending the open tryout, which happens to be this weekend. If Wyss and company can find another player as quietly effective as Ilich, they'll be successful once again.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!