Nikola Ilich was part of the group of young players who joined the Orange County Blues in 2015 and continued for a second season this year. The midfielder, a San Diego County native who won an open tryout to get a roster spot in 2015, had been a regular his rookie season under Oliver Wyss, serving mostly as a substitute but playing in nearly all games over the course of the season. His story was nice and it was good to see him find a place in pro soccer.
Was it more of the same in 2016? Not so much. Ilich still served as a squad midfielder, often brought on to provide fresh legs on both sides of the ball, but his minutes were drastically reduced from 2015. He got the most action in June and July, making eight of his appearances on the season in the middle of the summer, but following that he fell out of the pecking order and seldom played in the final months of the season under Barry Venison.
Here are Ilich's statistics for the 2016 season with the Blues:
|Games Played||Games Started||Minutes||Goals||Assists||Shots||SOG||Yellow Cards||Red Cards|
|USL Regular Season||14||4||379||0||0||8||1||0||0|
|U.S. Open Cup*|
*I have been trying to track down 2016 U.S. Open Cup stats for the Blues. When I get them, I will fill them in the players' stats.
So in 2015, Ilich played in 28 games across all competitions, scoring one goal in 1,375 minutes of action. Compared to that, he played little more than a quarter of those minutes this year.
What happened? As with other second-year returnees on the Blues in 2016, guys like Ryan Felix, Tyler Feeley and Jack McCracken, the expected bump in production and greater role after a solid debut campaign never came -- in fact their minutes were usually drastically reduced. Ilich featured into September, but the other players brought aboard for the season, followed by a real raft of midseason signings in August, pushed him out of Venison's reckoning.
So that leaves the future in doubt for the player. Ilich has not signed on with another USL team as of yet, but given his drastically reduced role and the new coach that will be coming in, it's unclear if the Blues would want to bring him back. It is true that Ilich was a hard worker on the field but given his role as a sub, he rarely produced "Wow" moments on the field. But he did help carry the water for his teammates to spark the wows, and every team needs players like that. It's just unclear if Ilich and Orange County will continue to work together after a down 2016 season.
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