New Mexico United’s Zico Bailey Living up to the Name

Zico Bailey’s sweet feet and famous namesake make folks think he’s Brazilian – but the versatile Nevada-born player is American as apple pie and causing a sensation with New Mexico United.
By: Jonah Fontela
Zico Bailey with the ball as two opponents close in during a match
Zico Bailey with the ball as two opponents close in during a match

“People always think I’m Brazilian when they see my name,” chuckled Zico Bailey, two-goal scorer from New Mexico United’s Round of 32 upset of Real Salt Lake in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Such confusion is caused by the fact that Bailey shares a name with one of Brazil’s modern masters. Known at birth as Arthur Antunes Coimbra, the free-kick specialist and No10 was dubbed Zico before going on to dazzle at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and at club level with Flamengo.

But that’s not where the confusion ends. Bailey’s got something special down around the feet, what Brazilians like to call Ginga – that indefinable artistry of the game. Slight and not-so tall, his one-on-one skills are excellent and, still just 23, his ceiling in the game is difficult to predict.

“The guys I would hone in on when I was a kid were Ronaldinho, early Neymar, Marcelo,” Bailey told, remembering back to the early days when, after school, he spent endless hours on YouTube watching the wizardry of those Brazilian maestros.

Bailey’s father, Richard, born in Jamaica and raised in Barbados, had a huge enthusiasm for the game. “It feels like I was born into the game,” Zico said of the early influence of his dad’s enduring passion, which led him to name his second son after his favorite Brazilian player.

Zico Bailey signing an autograph for a young New Mexico Untied fan
Zico Bailey signing an autograph for a young New Mexico Untied fan
Zico Bailey has become a fan favorite in Albuquerque

The Bailey family’s first son was named Kainoa. He went on to become a professional player too. Zico idolized his brother (older by five years) and followed him out onto the pitches and pick-up games on the outskirts of Las Vegas. “It wasn’t just soccer, I wanted to do whatever my brother was up to – if he was eating ice cream, I wanted to be eating ice cream. You name it.”

Talent Seen Early

Bailey’s talents developed early, if his physical frame didn’t. By the age of 13 he was in the LA Galaxy academy system after being invited to a U.S. Youth National Team (U-15) camp. He spent a year as a Cal State Fullerton Tiger, starting 17 of 21 games, before a quick stop in Denmark led to a landing in the big-time of Major League Soccer in 2020 with FC Cincinnati while still a teenager.

Zico Bailey battles a Real Salt Lake player for the ball
Zico Bailey battles a Real Salt Lake player for the ball
Bailey in action in the 2024 Round of 32 against MLS’ Real Salt Lake

It was the Ohio club’s second year in MLS after graduating up from the USL Championship. But before you get ahead of yourself, dear reader, this was the fledgling FC Cincinnati of Jaap Stam. Far from the power-club of today, that FC Cincy finished last in the league in 2019 and 2022 both. It was in this cauldron of hard-times where Bailey, still a pup, made his first appearances for the first team.

“I remember my first cap with Cincinnati because it was in that weird year of 2020,” he recalled of his MLS debut, with no fans in the stands, on the road in Philly during the dark days of Covid-19. “Greg Garza got hurt and I was thrown into the game with no warm-up – out at left back.”

Bailey, who prefers a perch out right or in the middle, where he lines up these days in the second-division of the USL Championship with New Mexico United, held his own and then some in a position he “never played before.” He made 20 appearances for the first team in Cincinnati and scored a memorable first goal against Atlanta United on the end of a backheel from future MLS MVP Lucho Acosta.

Zico Bailey is embraced by a teammate with a slight smile on his face
Zico Bailey is embraced by a teammate with a slight smile on his face
Bailey after the win over RSL in the 2024 Open Cup

He also got his first taste of the Open Cup in Cincinnati – on the wrong side of a 5-1 hammering in Massachusetts by Carles Gil and the New England Revolution in 2022.

New Albuquerque Home

Now he’s standing out in the crowd for New Mexico United, who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the 2024 Open Cup so far with a 4-2 win over Real Salt Lake, MLS’ western conference high-flyers. “We wanted to get that first big momentum play,” he said of the game-plan laid out by head coach Eric Quill.

The stylish Bailey provided it in the 17th minute, with his first goal for his new club. He added another two minutes later in a man-of-the-match performance. The crowd, fans he calls “among the best in American soccer” were on their feet. They were seeing first-hand the kind of style and excitement that caused club sporting director Itamar Keinan to sign Zico up at the start of the current season from San Antonio FC for what he calls his “obvious talent, skill, speed, and dedication.”

Bailey outshone RSL’s star man Diego Luna on that night.

“It was a really big night for the club,” Bailey said of the win, one that sets up a Round of 16 game where New Mexico United will be favorites – on paper at least – against New York City FC II in Queens on May 21. “Everyone in the team was on that night, and we all get that value of the Open Cup

“This is a chance to win a trophy and we’re taking that responsibility very seriously,” said Bailey, giving the fans hope of their club following in the footsteps of the 1999 Rochester Rhinos, who became the only non-MLS tournament winner (1999) since the top-flight league’s founding in 1996.

Bailey has taken to the Albuquerque-based club fast. And those fans who call Isotopes Park home, many of whom remember vividly the club’s debut run to the Open Cup Quarterfinal in 2019, have taken him to their hearts. “Cup games can be tricky,” said Bailey, adjusting to life at his new club in spectacular ways. “We were the underdogs then but we’ll have expectations on us now.

“You have to respect your opponent,” he said, knowing better than most how the script flips with ease. “If you don’t, you can get surprised.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.