When Union fans tune into the 2022 World Cup in Qatar this November, they’ll be drawn toward Americans Brendan Aaronson, Zach Steffen and Christian Pulisic, local stars who are expected to play major roles in Gregg Berhalter’s squad.
But Philly fans should also expect to follow Cameroon in support of a Union player making club history. Olivier Mbaizo is on pace to become the first active Union player to appear in a World Cup. Let that sink in for a few seconds.
Several Union players have appeared in a World Cup, most recently Marco Fabian in 2018, but he was with Eintracht Frankfurt at the time and didn’t sign with the Union until a year later. Captain Alejandro Bedoya played in the 2014 World Cup while with Ligue 1 side Nantes, and Haris Medunjanin also appeared in Brazil for Bosnia and Herzogivina shortly before joining Deportivo de La Coruña. There have been others. Gabriel Gomez, David Myrie, Carlos Valdez, Rais M’Bohli, Kléberson, Tranquillo Barnetta, Oguchi Onyewu and Maurice Edu all played in World Cups either before or after the Union but never while representing the Union.
So with the chance of becoming the first Union player to appear on the sport’s biggest stage, Olivier Mbaizo has had to find his form quickly after a difficult start to the 2022 season.
“I’m so happy,” Mbaizo told Brotherly Game recently about the potential of participating in a World Cup. “Every player wants to play in the World Cup. Everybody watches the World Cup.”
Making his senior debut in 2016 against Gabon the age of 19, Mbaizo has been capped eleven times, with most of those appearances coming within the past two years during qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup. In January’s AFCON, Mbaizo made a substitute appearance in the group stage draw with Cape Verde and came on late to preserve a 2-0 quarterfinal win over Gambia.
“It was a very good experience for me,” he said. “That’s my first time playing in that tournament for my country.”
After failing to appear in the heartbreaking penalty-kick semifinal loss to Egypt, Mbaizo started the third place game against Burkina Faso, which the Indomitable Lions won in penalties after trailing 3-0 forty-nine minutes in.
“I’m very happy because when I was young, I watched it on tv. And now I had a chance to get my first Africa Cup. I was happy, my family was happy, all of my country was happy, that’s why I’m very happy.”
Growing up with tales of World Cup legends Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o, now the President of the Cameroon Football Federation, Mbaizo has become a model for the next generation of young players. While most of his Cameroon teammates are based in Europe, like Karl Toko Ekambi (Lyon), Andre Onana (Inter), and Andre Zambo Anguissa (Napoli) to name a few, and several more in Asia, like captain Vincent Aboubakar (Al-Nassr) and starting right back Collins Fai (Al-Tai), Mbaizo is part of a new wave of Cameroon internationals making MLS a viable pathway. Defender Nouhou has been in the Seattle Sounders pipeline since 2016 while Nashville’s Brian Anunga and New England’s Wilfred Kaptoum made the jump to the U.S. in recent years. At AFCON, Mbaizo noted how special it was to play in front of the kids.
“Every young kid likes to see me when I go to my country,” he said, “because every time, I talk to the young kids and say it’s not easy, you have to work hard, do your job better.”
Riding the high of a third-place finish while representing his country on its home soil, Mbaizo returned with the challenge of starting a new season, essentially with no rest. He didn’t look like himself in the opening draw against Minnesota United, especially when he got beat down the side by Franco Fragapane, which led to Minnesota taking an early lead at Subaru Park. “It was very hard because after the season I went straight to the Africa Cup,” he said. “After Africa Cup, I missed most of the preseason. I came in like two weeks before.”
With the third-place game coming on February 5th, Mbaizo spent a few days at home before arriving back in Philadelphia. He played 73 minutes in the final preseason tune-up with Nashville February 18.
“That’s why I didn’t feel good for the first game. I played a bad game.”
In late March, Mbaizo left again, this time as Cameroon played Algeria in a massive home and away series to decide one of CAF’s five spots in the World Cup. Cameroon dropped the first leg 1- 0 at home but scored the only goal in the return leg to force extra time. After Algeria scored in the 119th minute, Cameroon came back to score the equalizer in the 124th minute to take the contest on away goals. Though Mbaizo didn’t feature in those games, he was ready for his opportunity, as he was again in June for Cameroon’s AFCON 2024 qualifiers. But the journey still takes a toll, the travel, the emotions, the uncertainties, and it’s time away from the Union where he’d been battling to regain his spot since the early season.
After the season opener, Mbaizo made a few spot starts but mostly came on as a late substitute for Nathan Harriel as an attacking option. But he’s started seven of the last ten games, including five of the last six, and has had some of his best performances since becoming a regular starter last season after the unexpected retirement of Ray Gaddis.
“Nathan and him are two great backs,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the Chicago game. “We have a good problem in that we have two guys that are among the best defense in the league statistically in a lot of categories, so we can rely on both of them at any time. We can make changes to the backline to keep guys fresh in the busy week like we have coming up, so it’s a real luxury to have.”
In his recent starts, Mbaizo has given the Union a needed spark down the right side, combining with Bedoya to create numerous chances going forward. His two-assist performance against Houston put him back in the spotlight as an attacking threat, and while he completed 93.3% of his passes against Miami and 96% against Orlando, he posted a season-high 25 pressures against Chicago, with 11 of them coming in the middle-third.
Against Chicago, he was excellent again on the attack. His header off a cleared corner eight minutes form the half sent Gaga Slonina deep into his own net, leading to a mishandle that Jack Elliott tucked away for the Union’s second goal. In the eighty-second minute, he soared down the wing again, sending in a low ball to Cory Burke, who buried it from close range to put the Union up 4-1. With three assists over the last three games, Mbaizo is one shy of his MLS total last season with nine games to play.
“Confidence,” Curtin said when asked about the difference between Mbaizo now versus earlier in the season. “All players, whether they’re attackers, whether they’re defenders, they need a rhythm and they need a run of games and they need belief.” Mbaizo exuded that confidence with several outstanding dribbles. In the twenty-fourth minute, he sent Chicago midfielder Gastón Gimenéz to the ground with a stepover followed by a sharp cut on Mauricio Pineda that left the central defender down as well. Later in the second half, he megged a defender before creating another attacking chance down the outside.
And defensively, he made several stops on Chris Mueller and Xerdan Shaqiri, and though the two combined down his side early in the second half, it was Jack Elliott’s uncharacteristic giveaway that caught Mbaizo higher up the field, unable to recover in time.
“There were still some plays which we’ll show him on film where he was a little bit hesitant,” Curtin said, “and I’m not saying it’s an easy thing, but he was a little too quick to drop off Mueller or to drop off Shaqiri where I think he’s best when he’s defending forward, being aggressive because he is so fast with his recovery speed.”
Curtin previously mentioned both Mbaizo and Harriel will feature prominently as the season progresses, but the recent string of games has required more composure on the ball and a balanced attack on the wings, something that suits Mbaizo’s skillset slightly more than his younger counterpart. “We want him to continue to get better,” Curtin said, “but he played a good game again tonight, set up a goal. And overall confidence. That’s the biggest thing with any defender, and he’s still young player, too. Everyone forgets, he’s been around for a while but he’s still a young defender that keeps getting better and better.”
Now in his fifth year with the club since joining Bethlehem Steel in 2018, Mbaizo turned 25 August 15th and has gained tremendous experience over the past two seasons alone, which will likely lead to him being a mentor figure for the Union’s newest signings Richard Odada and Abasa Aremeyaw. But with the years of fitting in and waiting his turn now behind him, Mbaizo will be entering an important stretch of games over the next several months, which will impact his preparation for Qatar and his future international career. And his coach has noticed.
“Olivier certainly raised his game,” Curtin said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that World Cup is in his mind.”
Mbaizo agreed that his confidence has changed since the start of the season. “I feel good. Everything’s ok.” Going forward, as the playoff race shapes up, the Union will have a greater need for a balanced attack, scoring goals from counters and free play. With seven games remaining, and both the Supporters’ Shield and Concacaf Champions League berths within reach, Mbaizo will be a key player to help get the Union back to the next level and beyond.
“Everybody’s confident to be in the MLS Cup,” he said.
And for a team that’s been as good as any in the league all season, confidence may be what takes the Union to the top in November.