Kicker Nil Vinyals & the Long Road to Richmond

Barcelona-born creator Nil Vinyals took a circuitous path to the pro game in Richmond,Virginia – and he’s loving every minute of it as his Kickers aim for more history in the Open Cup
By: Angelo Maduro

It is not uncommon for a kid born and bred in Catalunya, home to Spanish giants FC Barcelona and La Liga up-and-comers Girona, to dream of a future in the game. It is uncommon for that dream to come true – and for that future to pass through Jackson, Tennessee and Rock Hill, South Carolina with a stop in Statesboro, Georgia before settling, eventually, in Virginia’s River City of Richmond.

“I was 17 years-old and I felt like I was at a point where I didn’t really know what to do with my playing and with my studies,” said Nil Vinyals, who grew up playing with FC Barcelona’s futsal club and a series of academies around the Catalan capital. “The U.S. was perfect for me because I could combine playing at a high level in college and studying.”

What he calls his “crazy journey” (now in its tenth year) took Vinyals first to tiny Union University, where he could study sports management, which was “not a thing” one could do where he grew up. Next came a full scholarship and a move to Winthrop University, a “much better” division-one NCAA program. From there, he played summers with South Georgia Tormenta’s USL League Two side before signing on with the Tormenta USL League One first team in its inaugural year.

“I’ve been all over the place here in the States,” Vinyals said. “And I’m just glad to be able to wake up every morning and play the sport I love.”

At Home in Virginia

Vinyals is a cultured midfielder with both creative vision and defensive acumen. An assist-master, he’s approaching 150 League One appearances and is regarded as one of its top all-time players. He now, at 27-year-old, calls Richmond, Virginia home. “You blink and ten years have gone by,” he said of his decade on a tour of the U.S. southern states, hunting a chance to keep making his living in the game.

With the Kickers, he’s found a club with a long history – at least by U.S. standards. Vinyals is coaching young teens in the youth academy, too, and helping lead the USL League One side on a run in this year’s U.S. Open Cup.

“We won this tournament in 1995,” he said about the Open Cup – a point of pride for all players who find themselves at the City Stadium. “There’s a lot of excitement in the city when it comes time to play in the Open Cup.”

Vinyals in Second Round Cup action against the Maryland Bobcats

The Spaniard, who helped the Kickers to a USL League One title in 2022, is stepping into a bigger role this year. With club legend and three-time USL League One MVP Emilio Terzaghi still out with an injury he suffered last year, it’s up to Vinyals and the other veterans in Darren Sawatzky’s squad to step up and produce – to lead and drive the Kickers forward.

“Emi [Terzaghi] is not able to play and that’s not good for us,” said Vinyals. “But he’s always around and helping off the field and it falls to us, the veteran players, to step up. And for attacking players like myself, we have to score the goals that he [Terzaghi] won’t be able to this year.”

So far, Vinyals has been linking up with new signing Adrian Billhardt to great effect going forward.

The Kickers, as always, can rely on their historic City Stadium and the dedicated fans that have filled its old-fashioned concrete terraces since the club was founded in 1993. “The environment we have is key,” said Vinyals, who scored the first goal in a 5-2 rout of the Maryland Bobcats in the last round of the Cup – one week after knocking off amateur powerhouses Christos FC of Baltimore.

Vinyals is among the Kickers team leaders approaching 150 USL League One appearances

“And it’s not just the fans, who I think are the best in USL League One and create a real soccer environment,” added Vinyals ahead of a third straight home game for the Kickers in this 2024 Open Cup. “It’s the playing field too [manicured natural grass] that suits our type of play – trying to keep the ball on the ground, keep the ball moving and impose our will on our opponent.”

The next opponent to come to the 102-year-old City Stadium is Loudoun United. They’re from a division above in the USL Championship. “Of course, on paper we’re the underdogs,” Vinyals said of the team from nearby Leesburg, Virginia who the Kickers annually meet up with in pre-season play – games that Vinyals says “always feel like League games” such is their intensity.

“But we know what we’re capable of,” added Vinyals. “And there’s no reason we can’t take advantage and win.”

MLS Club Awaits?

If the Kickers manage to get one over on their in-state neighbors it could well mean they play a Major League Soccer side in the Round of 32. It would be a second-straight year should that happen – as the Kickers went on a run in 2023 which ended with a slim 1-0 loss to D.C. United. “I missed that game with injury,” remembered Vinyals, still with some disappointment in his voice.

When Vinyals talks about the Richmond fans and the club, where he’s been able to extend his pro playing career and take his first steps into the world of coaching, you get the sense he’s talking about home. After ten years in the U.S., one wonders what the future holds for this player.

“It’s the million-dollar question,” he laughs when asked if he plans to go back to live in his native Spain. “I always go back for a month around Christmas and it’s so great to see family. There’s the food and the culture – and it’s always hard to leave my friends back there.

“But the opportunity to play here at the level I’m playing at, it’s hard to pass on that and all this country has given me,” Vinyals said, facing up to the next challenge in U.S. soccer’s oldest tournament (and with its longest continually operating club). “Maybe one day I’ll go back, but I like to live in the present.”

Maduro is a senior reporter at large for