The story begins like a soccer fairy tale.
American teenager, scoring a goal a game for his under-18 team, aces overseas tryout with Liverpool FC (five goals and two assists in two games) and inks a three-year contract.
It was only a matter of time until Villyan Bijev pulled on that distinctive red jersey and took his place at striker for one of the most storied clubs on the planet.
From the fields of Fresno to the English Premier League in the space of a few dribbles.
Except real life hardly ever works like that. Real life is not a fairy tale. Real life is full of hurdles, pitfalls and circumstances beyond your control.
“I was completely unprepared for the professional soccer world,” Bijev says.
Here’s what happens in real life: Despite that contract with Liverpool you are unable to obtain a work permit for the United Kingdom. So you get loaned to a club in Germany, where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language.
You’re barely out of high school and getting paid a six-figure salary to play soccer, the fulfillment of a childhood dream. Except you never dreamt it would be like this.
“Getting thrown into a professional culture was a complete shock,” Bijev says now, a week shy of his 23rd birthday.
“Here I was the big guy, the important player, the guy scoring goals and feeling good about myself. Then in an instant I’m in Germany and I’m the youngest guy on the team. I have to carry the balls, do the cones. It was a complete flip.”
Eighteen months pass before the work permit finally comes through. By then you’ve also been loaned out to a club in Norway.
More significantly, the manager whom you impressed at that tryout, the one that signed you and wanted to develop your talent, gets sacked. The new manager has his own plans, his own favorites. You’re not one of them.
You finally suit up for Liverpool’s under-21 side, finally get to wear that red jersey, and you play well. You start a few games and score a few goals, including an 89th-minute equalizer in an important match against Arsenal.
Still, it isn’t enough. In May 2014, the three-year contract at an end, Liverpool cuts you loose.
“It’s a hard lesson to learn that you’re dispensable – especially at 21,” Bijev says. “But that’s the life you sign up for.”
Fresno Fuego general manager Jeremy Schultz, a friend and adviser, understands better than most.
“Professional soccer at that level is a cutthroat world,” Schultz says. “For every kid who signs a contract and makes it straight away in the Premier League, there are more than 50 like Villyan who don’t.”
Unsure of your next move, you take the advice of your agent and sign a contract with a club in the Bulgarian A Group.
Bulgaria is not exactly a soccer hotbed, but the move makes sense. You were born in Bulgaria and lived there until you were 5, when your family immigrated to the U.S. You hold dual citizenship.
You take a big pay cut, but at least this new club, Slavia Sofia, will afford you the opportunity to play. You’ll get to showcase yourself and, eventually, get sold to another club. Which is the way things typically work.
Or so you are led to believe.
Instead, a week before the season, your team brings in another striker from a league rival. He’s 32 years old and plays 90 minutes of every match. You’re stuck.
“We ended up going on a seven-game losing streak without a goal scored and they still didn’t change him,” Bijev says. “I never even got a chance. That’s when I knew that wasn’t the place for me. I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”
For the first time you begin to question things, starting with whether you made the right decision to turn pro.
Signing that Liverpool contract was a no-brainer – anyone in your position would’ve done the same – but it meant giving up a scholarship to Washington. It meant giving up going to classes, to parties, to having a normal college experience.
“That was a really crappy time for me,” Bijev says. “I could’ve come home after those first six months in Bulgaria.”
Instead, you stick it out. You tell yourself the only way you can lose is if you quit. Slavia Sofia agrees to terminate your contract and you sign with another Bulgarian A Group club, Cherno More.
You play two half-seasons for the Sailors and make 30 total appearances between league and Cup play. It’s not an ideal situation – the team is relegated to playing matches against only the bottom half of the league – but you make the best of it.
After a while, you begin to regain your former confidence. You learn how not to be affected when others doubt you or tell you you’re not good enough. You persevere.
Having absorbed these lessons, you decide it’s time to leave Bulgaria. You part ways with Cherno More at midseason and head home to Fresno to spend the holidays with your family and figure out the next move.
Of course you’ll continue playing soccer. It’s just a matter of where. You have an agent looking at opportunities in Europe. You also have people like Schultz reaching out to MLS clubs on your behalf.
“I’d love to see Villyan come back and play in the United States,” Schultz says. “He has the credentials to get into some MLS camps, without a doubt. What happens then is up to him.”
Mostly, it’s about finding a good fit. Someplace where you’ll get an opportunity to compete for playing time.
After 4½ years playing in Europe, the last 1 ½ in Bulgaria, you understand you’ve fallen a little off the radar. You realize teams will have questions about how you’ve developed.
That’s OK, though. You know how much time you’ve devoted to training and improving your skills. You’ve conducted yourself as a professional athlete. You’re eager to show everyone.
“Villyan hasn’t had an easy road, but he’s young and has all these challenging experiences he can learn from,” says Chad McCarty, a former MLS and international player who coached Bijev at Clovis North High.
“Now is the time for him to seize on his experience and really bring it to the table for his next contract. He’s young, but it goes quick.”
No longer are you that young American star who signed a pro contract with one of the world’s most famous soccer clubs.
You are a young adult with blond hair arranged in a fauxhawk and scruffy beard. You are not only older and wiser but mentally stronger. Your self-belief is evident to anyone listening.
“I see these struggles as something that had to happen, something I had to go through,” Bijev says. “If I didn’t go through them, later on in life something would’ve happened that just knocked me out.
“I wouldn’t have been ready for it. Now I am. I’ve been hit pretty hard, but I’m not on my back. I’m still fighting through it.”
This is no soccer fairy tale. It’s the rocky road of reality.