The NASL featured three new teams in 2016, with the most recent addition being Puerto Rico FC. The arrival of PRFC not only marks the NASL’s return to Puerto Rico for the first time since the folding of the Islanders in 2012, it also showcases the good relationship between the NASL and the NPSL. Of PRFC’s 24 players in its roster, five of them are former NPSL players: Bljedic Bardic, Sidney Rivera, Tyler Rudy, and former Rhode Island Reds standout twins Pedro and Paulo Ferreira Mendes.
With the team being in its first season, it means all of the players are starting off with a blank slate, regardless of previous experiences. According to midfielder Tyler Rudy, this is good because it allows everyone to have the same collective goal in mind.
“Because everyone is coming in at the same exact time, no one knows what to expect, it’s a new team,” he said. “Some guys are older than others, some guys are kind of winding down their careers and some guys are just trying to get it going but everyone understands our ultimate goal is to win the league.”
Rudy is one of the five NPSL players on the team and previously played for DC United’s U-23 NPSL side in 2011. This season he has played in 13 of 14 matches for PRFC, starting 12 times and scoring one goal in the process. But as Rudy begins to make a name for himself in the NASL, he is fully aware that the NPSL helped him develop as a player and has fond memories of playing in the league.
“It was a great experience. I think from the overall standpoint of players they don’t give the NPSL enough credit because maybe the PDL overshines it a little bit, but the competition was very good and it was a very good league,” he asserted.
“I think one of the biggest things for me is that I was able to play against basically men. I was 19, 20 – even 18 – and I was playing against older guys, guys that had been playing professionally for a long time,” he added. “It kind of made me take a step forward in my career.”
Another player who credits his time in the NPSL with helping him advance his career is forward Bljedi Bardic, who played for the Clarkstown SC Eagles and left the team as the all-time leading scorer.
“My time playing with Clarkstown in the NPSL was a very good experience and it helped me a lot to prepare and improve my game to go to the next level,” he shared. “Being the leading goal scorer and the leader in assists in a team gives you a huge confidence and it makes you believe you are ready for the next level.”
If Bardic sounds confident, it’s because he knows that he has put in the hard work to get to where is at, something his former coach can testify to. According to Oliver Papraniku, head coach and owner of the Clarkstown SC Eagles, Bardic was so committed to playing that he went to training sessions by taking public transportation that often took three hours each way.
“Bljedi was our team leader the past three years and played every minute of every game for all three seasons. His speed and ball handling ability made him a goal scoring threat every time he had the ball,” shared Bill Linder, a Clarkstown SC Eagles associate.
“He was a team player who could quickly scan the field to see who had the better opportunity to put the ball in the back of the net. His pin point passes to teammates made them better players too. He was always there to help young players improve on their skills in practices.”
Sidney Rivera is another PRFC player whose ascent to the professional ranks is the result of hard work. Formerly with Virginia Beach City FC, Rivera wasn’t even supposed to play with the team initially. Virginia Beach City FC’s Director of Soccer Operations and Head Coach Brian Hinkey shared with us how Rivera found his way to the team.
“Sidney is a person of great character and I am grateful I had the opportunity to work with him. He wasn’t in our first team as we started pre-season as we are only allocated five players from a school. Sidney was the 6th player. He didn’t quit or give up, he just stated he would like to continue to train and improve. I was impressed by that and his words became action,”
Through a mixture of hard work and fortune, Rivera earned a spot with the Virginia Beach City, and he made the most of it.
“Before the season was to start Ivan Militar injured his knee and would need surgery. I called Sidney into the team and he was one of our best players. He scored some important goals for us and always provided a passionate effort,” Hinkey shared. “He improved a lot over the course of the summer and carried it into Old Dominion University where he went on a goal scoring terror. The rest is history.”
In addition to being in a brand new team, the players also share a sense of accomplishment. For players like Bardic and Rudy being in the NASL feels like reward for having spent years laboring in lower leagues to earn a shot with a professional team.
“To play for a professional team feels amazing, all your hard work and dedication paying off is one of the best feelings ever,” said Bardic.
As for Rudy, he feels vindicated not just for himself, but also for his family.
“It’s pretty incredible. It’s a lifelong dream accomplished,” he stated. “It all kind of just hit me and it’s like ‘It was all worth it’. It wasn’t just me, it was my entire family that just pushed me to get through it and I definitely couldn’t have made it without them.”
Rudy also has some advice for up and coming players who play in the NPSL with the goal of reaching the professional ranks.
“I played in both the PDL and the NPSL. It’s the same level of competition I would argue and it’s ultimately the same thing. I think the link between the NPSL and the NASL is just as great as the link between USL and PDL right now. The NPSL is a very strong league so I would definitely recommend it for development, playing against older guys, and good competition.”
NPSL players out there take note: If these PRFC players are anything to go by, hard work does indeed pay off.