Normally an offseason addition is met with excitement and the possibility of what he might bring to his new club.
But for the first few months of the Major League Soccer regular season, Giliano Wijnaldum was an unknown to the Philadelphia Union.
Wijnaldum, who was signed in January as the apparent starter at left back, didn’t make this first start for the club until May 20 at home against the Colorado Rapids. Before his MLS debut, the Dutchman was playing at USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel.
“In the beginning it was hard to play for Steel because I didn’t come here to play with the second team,” Wijnaldum said. “I came here to play with the first team, but in the beginning I wasn’t even in the 18. I was training with the first team, but playing my games with the second team. It was hard.”
Over the past few weeks, Wijnaldum has shown why sporting director Earnie Stewart decided to rekindle their relationship from AZ Alkmaar. The connection between the two was the reason why Wijnaldum jumped at a move to the United States in the first place.
“I know Earnie from AZ Alkmaar,” Wijnaldum said. “The choice was easy to come here because Earnie was already here. I know him and he knows my quality and what I can do. He called me and asked if I wanted to come to the States.”
The 24-year-old has started the last three games for the Union, including the hard-fought road draw against Sporting Kansas City a week ago. His presence in the lineup ahead of Fabinho is all a part of the big picture the Union have of having two quality players at each position on the depth chart.
“I think it’s a great example of the depth,” Curtin said. “Fabinho had a decent run. I think every guy in our back line has had good games this year and had some down games. Giliano’s come in and done a good job.”
“Giliano had some really good one-on-one defending moments,” Curtin said. “He had some moments where he could’ve gotten a little tighter as well. For his road game in our league, he’s done a very good job.”
The trip to Kansas City was one of the first tastes of travel in MLS for Wijnaldum, a quality that some think is the hardest to adjust to when coming over from Europe, but the left back has faced his share of challenges already in his six months in Philadelphia.
“It was hard because I didn’t play a couple of months and I think the tactics in Europe is better, but here you have to work hard. Every team can beat each other,” Wijnaldum said.
Wijnaldum credits fellow Dutchman Roland Alberg and Haris Medunjanin for helping him settle into a squad that the defender was mainly unfamiliar with.
“If you come into a new team in Europe or the Netherlands, you know a couple of players already and here I didn’t know anybody if they weren’t here,” Wijnaldum said. “It’s different than Europe, but I was lucky that Haris and Roland Alberg were here. I talked with them a lot. It’s a hard adjustment, but not so hard because they are here.”
The name Wijnaldum was familiar to many in soccer circles already because Giliano’s brother Georginio plays for Liverpool in the Premier League. The two try to talk as much as they can with the time difference, and there are some pointers given out here and there.
“Now it’s a little bit harder because of time,” Wijnaldum said. “We try to talk every week.”
“I didn’t go to him for advice, but if he saw something that was bad, he would tell me,” Wijnaldum said. “But I don’t go for advice. We talk about different things, football, life. But it’s not like I go to him and say “This is the situation” If he sees it on TV or in the stadium, he’ll say hey this is the moment where you have to do this or this.”
After the Gold Cup break ends, the Union will dive head first back into the MLS schedule with a pair of two-game weeks. The confidence Wijnaldum has gained in the last month will be key for the continued success of the Union defense, and himself as an individual.
“I think I played well, but I can be better,” Wijnaldum said. “Now I’ve played a couple games in a row. That’s a good feeling and I hope it’s going to continue until the end of the season.”