When Ray Gaddis retired unexpectedly days before the Philadelphia Union’s 2021 Concacaf Champions League opener against Saprissa, Olivier Mbaizo was thrust into the monumental role of replacing the nine-year MLS veteran, club leader in games and minutes played, and leader of the defending Supporters’ Shield winners on the verge of its international debut.
Mbaizo put any concerns to rest in the opening half when he picked out Kacper Przybylko at the penalty spot for a massive away goal that gave the Union a 1-0 lead heading back to Chester.
In 2021, Olivier Mbaizo proved in many ways to be a more than suitable filler for his predecessor. He played in 30 MLS games, starting 28, for 2,489 minutes. In the Champions League, he played every minute of the first two rounds but was forced to exit the first leg of the semifinals against Club América after his tooth was knocked out by Mauro Lainez’s flailing elbow. He played most of the second leg, exiting late as the Union tried to insert more attacking players after going down 3-0 on aggregate.
His four MLS assists tied for fourth on the team, his first finding Sergio Santos in the closing minutes against the Red Bulls in early July when the Union were down a goal and a man for the final 30 minutes. Mbaizo earned MLS Team of the Week for his performance in that game.
Playing more as a wingback than a traditional stay at home defender like Gaddis, Mbaizo excelled going forward, taking on players with the 1 vs 1 skill of an experienced striker. He controlled his side of the field and forced opponents to sit back and defend their left flank. As the season progressed, Mbaizo’s partnership with Alejandro Bedoya down the right side exhausted defenses with a steady wave of combinations and overlaps, and for much of the season, the duo were the Union’s most dangerous threats going forward.
Although not as popularized, Olivier Mbaizo’s rise over the past four seasons has been just as impressive as that of recent Union homegrowns Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. Joining the Bethlehem Steel in 2018, Mbaizo started 22 games at right back, earning USL Team of the Week after a double-assist outing against Richmond. He made his Union debut in late September against Sporting Kansas City and had three more appearances for the Union in 2019 while also playing for the Steel and Cameroon’s U-20 National Team. Last season, he appeared 14 times in place of Gaddis, logging 1,057 minutes, and had two assists, improving with each game as he grew more comfortable in the system.
In addition to his breakout 2021 season with the Union, Mbaizo featured several times for Cameroon’s senior national team, starting with March’s Africa Cup Of Nations qualifier against Union teammate Jamiro Monteiro’s Cape Verde. He also appeared in five World Cup qualifiers in the fall, including the winner-take-all 1-0 win over Ivory Coast that secured Cameroon’s place in the final round where they await their opponent in a home and away series to be played in March.
Mbaizo is certain to be a key player in Cameroon’s quest for the AFCON title. The tournament hosts open play January 9 against Burkina Faso then play Ethiopia January 13 before closing out the group stage against Cape Verde January 17. With Mbaizo’s recent contributions to the national side, he’s on track to become the first Union player to appear in a World Cup while currently with the club.
Bedoya appeared in the 2014 tournament prior to his arrival in 2016, and former Union players Tranquillo Barnetta (2006, 2010), Maurice Edu (2010), Kléberson (2002, 2010), Oguchi Onyewu (2006, 2010), Rais M’Bohli (2010, 2014), Haris Medunjanin (2014), and Marco Fabian (2018) all appeared in World Cups prior to playing for the Union.
Carlos Valdes was not with the Union when he played in 2014, David (Myrie 2014) appeared after his season with the Union in 2010, and Gabriel Gomez played one season with the Union in 2012 before appearing in 2018. The CAF playoff draw will be held on January 26.
Unfortunately, for a player who logged close to 3,000 minutes last season, Mbaizo will be remembered for the last three. In the closing seconds of the Eastern Conference Final against New York City FC, it was his botched clearance that led to Gudmundur Thórarinsson finding Talles Magno for the late winner that ended the Union’s magical playoff run. It was one of a number of defensive lapses from Mbaizo last season, evidence of the inexperience that separated him from that of the reliable Gaddis. But despite this, Mbaizo proved his quality throughout the entirety of the season and with unique experiences in AFCON and potentially the World Cup, he’ll continue to improve and could be one of the league’s biggest success stories in 2022 and beyond.
MLS Team of the Week: Week 12
FotMob Man of the Match: New York Red Bulls, July 9
Read our other 2021 Player Reviews at brotherlygame.com/player-reviews.