Hélio Sousa did not have to look very far to build his roster.
The manager was assembling his squad for the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and when you represent one of the world’s richest talent pools, you have an array of choices at your disposal.
So one by one, Sousa made his picks from Portugal’s famed youth academies.
All in all, 20 of the 21 call-ups developed at Portuguese clubs. 12 players came from Os Três Grandes - the Big Three of Benfica, Porto, and Sporting CP.
André Silva, Gonçalo Guedes, Gelson Martins – players who would go on to play for clubs like AC Milan, PSG, Valencia, and Atlético.
One player not making headlines was the only one coming from outside the borders.
Janio Bikel is not one to draw attention.
“Just a normal guy,” he describes himself.
“Simple, humble,” says Whitecaps FC assistant coach Phil Dos Santos.
But you have to stand out for the selection committee to venture out of Portugal and call you home to represent your country, and that’s what Bikel did in October 2013.
Having been invited to a tournament in Budapest with the Portuguese U-19 team, Bikel impressed in three matches against tough competition in Spain, Slovakia, and host Hungary.
All while playing with a heavy heart, his mother having passed away in the eve of the tournament.
“It was hard,” says Bikel. “She was my biggest motivation. I wish she were there.”
The same spirit that caught Sousa’s eye is the same reason the ‘Caps had to act quick to snatch him when the opportunity presented early in preseason this year.
“He fit the profile not only as player, but in his desire to come into MLS where he can grow and reach higher levels,” says Dos Santos. “We wanted someone who would come here with a lot of ambition.”
Often, the entire acquisition process, from discovery to putting pen to paper, takes months.
This was a different case.
“Football is about moments and we had to make a quick assessment but we were able to make a comfortable decision right away,” recalls Dos Santos. “I was on my way to the NSDC and I get a message from Marc, saying I had to look at this guy. He ticked a lot of boxes. He not only had the capability to play at midfield, he could also give us stability and versatility to play at right back.”
It wasn’t just the game tape. Something else left the ‘Caps brain trust convinced he would be easily adaptable to a new situation.
The resume spoke loudly, showing a well-traveled journey beginning in his youth.
Born in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony off West Africa’s Atlantic coast, Bikel spent much of his childhood outside with his four older siblings.
Soccer captured his passion early, and he joined a local academy in hopes of one day being able to pursue his dream around the world.
An opportunity came along when he was part of a travel group that visited Spain, and he was told clubs like Málaga and Valencia had shown interest in having him join their academies.
A smaller club in Valencia, CF Torre Levante, got closest to becoming a reality but they never reached an agreement.
Bikel left Spain disappointed, and was soon left without a club. With no facility to train in, he hit the streets of Massamá in Lisbon, plying his trade against whoever wanted to play.
“Life was hard, but I had to believe there was going to be a right move for me,” said Bikel. “I continued to work because I’m the one with the opportunity to take care of my family.”
His big break came when SC Heerenveen came calling and he joined the Dutch club’s youth ranks.
It was under his academy coach Johnny Jansen, now the club’s first team manager, that he grew leaps and bounds and his aspirations suddenly became attainable.
“I know what you’re going through, you have to believe,” Jansen told Bikel. “I know you’re strong, you’re going to play football at a higher level.”
He made his Eredivisie debut in 2014, then moved south to NEC the following season when he would enjoy a breakout campaign.
After three seasons with NEC, Bikel transferred to Bulgaria with CSKA Sofia in 2018. He quickly became a key contributor, helping The Reds to a runner-up finish in the Bulgarian First League as well as a semifinal berth in the Bulgarian Cup in his first season.
All of his worldly dreams he had as a kid in the port city of Bissau was coming to fruition.
It was his play at CSKA, including the UEFA Europa League, that got the attention of one Axel Schuster back in Vancouver.
“People are going to see a true will for wanting the team to succeed,” promises Phillip Dos Santos.
This came to the forefront in just the second week of the 2020 MLS season.
On the very last possession of the final training session prior to their game at LA Galaxy, Jake Nerwinski suffered a hamstring injury, leaving the ‘Caps suddenly vulnerable at the right back position.
“I knew I was going to play maybe 10 or 15 minutes just to get minutes,” said Bikel. “And then the coach told me I was going to have to start.”
Bikel stepped up to the plate, going full 90 to help hold LA Galaxy scoreless in their home opener.
“He answered in a way that he looked like a player that has been with us for months,” said Marc Dos Santos following the 1-0 win.
In typical Bikel fashion, the performance was quiet, without fanfare, and drawing very little attention outside of his own coaches.
Looks like he has found a home here in Vancouver - the right situation for a player who likes to work in silence.
"Even in being quiet, even being a player who just goes about his business, fans are going to realize that every game he plays in, he's going to want to be the best he can be," says Phil Dos Santos.
Bikel is content - taciturn but you can't help but hear joy in his few words.
“This is an amazing club, and this is where I want to be,” says Bikel.
(CSKA Sofia image credit: Getty Images)