Joe Dodson, Contributing Writer
Every year, colleges across the United States search the globe for promising young players to join their programs. VCU is no different; 13 of men’s soccer’s 33-man squad are international players.
Redshirt-junior forward Biska Biyombo, senior defender Ryo Shimazaki and junior defender Ulrik Edvardsen traveled from across the world to continue their soccer journeys at VCU. Although they come from different cultures and speak different languages, they have formed a family bond with their teammates.
Shimazaki is from Kawasaki, Japan, and he played club soccer for the city’s under-18 first division team. His freshman year, Shimazaki had difficulty making relationships; until recently, he only spoke Japanese.
“My first year I barely spoke English. I was struggling with communicating with the guys and my coaches,” Shimazaki said. “I barely understood what they were talking about, I just nodded my head and smiled.”
Now, Shimazaki has learned English and formed close friendships with his teammates. His sophomore year was a noticeable step up for the defender — he started every game and scored his first two goals.
Last season, Shimazaki took another step forward after helping the Rams become Atlantic 10 regular season champions. He was named to the VaSID Second Team All-State and All-A-10 Second Team.
Before VCU, Edvardsen was the captain of Norwegian first division club SK Brann’s under-19 squad.
His former club told him he was not going to get a professional contract, so this left two options for Edvardsen: he could play in the lower divisions in Norway or try something new.
“I really wanted a new environment,” Edvardsen said. “After meeting with coach Giffard, it was VCU for me.”
Edvardsen has improved throughout his time at VCU. His freshman year, he started 17 of 18 games in which he helped his team achieve eight shutouts, and was named to the A-10 All-Rookie team. Edvardsen started all 18 games last season, half of which were shutouts. He was named to the United Soccer Coaches Third Team All-Southeast Region, along with being named to the All-A-10 Second Team.
Biyombo’s family moved to the United States from Congo six years ago, and he attended Montverde Academy in Florida for high school.
Biyombo then played two years at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado where he scored 38 goals. He said he felt a big change between junior college soccer and Division I.
“It was a big step for me,” Biyombo said. “I remember my first practice I went to go for a ‘50-50’ against Ulrik … I found myself on the ground.”
Biyombo only played five games his first year at VCU before an injury required surgery and ended his season.
This year, Biyombo has played every game, scoring four goals and assisting three. Although he hasn’t had the best start at VCU, coach Dave Giffard is confident in his starting forward’s ability.
“He is continuing to improve and grow,” Giffard said. “[He’s] starting to find his way.”
Biyombo hopes to play professional soccer after VCU. His brother, Bismack, plays in the NBA for the Charlotte Hornets and motivates him to achieve professional status to help his home country — and make his family proud.
“I’m really proud of him [Bismack]. I really thank him for what he does for the kids and our family,” Biyombo said. “That’s why I want to make it to that level as well.”
All three players depend on their families for support. Unlike local players whose families can watch them anytime there’s a home game, international players often don’t get to play in front of their loved ones.
“It is really hard as an international,” Biyombo said. “When you leave the country they expect you to do more. Family plays a big part in our role of being international [players].”
Edvardsen calls his parents after every game to get constructive feedback, regardless of his performance.
“They’re always there for me,” Edvardsen said. “Everything I do in soccer, and the reason I want to play professional, is because of my family.”
No matter where the players come from, or what language they speak, men’s soccer has become a brotherhood for the team’s international players. Even without their families and friends from home, they feel supported.
“We’ve just become a family. I feel like I have 32 brothers in my locker room,” Edvardsen said.
The 33 players from 13 countries share the same goal of becoming A-10 conference champions. For seniors such as Shimazaki, this is their last chance to do so — the team is confident that this is the year.
“I can’t leave without it,” Shimazaki said.