Oka Nikolov is back. The Macedonian, who joined Philadelphia Union in 2013, moved on to Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2014, and returned in a coaching capacity in Frankfurt in 2015 before spending two years on Jim Curtin's staff -- helping Andre Blake win 2016 MLS Goalie of the Year and a nomination in 2017 -- will rejoin the club as an Assistant Coach and Director of Goalkeeping. Nikolov spent last year as an assistant coach to Sigi Schmid and Dominic Kinnear with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
"I worked before for the Union and [Head Coach] Jim [Curtin] and [Assistant Coach] BJ [Callaghan], so I always liked the franchise, liked the city, liked the team," Nikolov said last week. "I had a opportunity to go to the Galaxy to learn more... I started my coaching career 4-5 years ago and I was thinking it was a good thing to learn with experienced coaches like Sigi Schmid and Dominic Kinnear."
Nikolov's playing career lasted 19 years, including nearly 400 appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt between 1995 and 2013. The Union signed Nikolov in June of 2013 as a backup goalie never put him on the pitch. After a year playing in Ft. Lauderdale, the Macedonian -- who is also a German citizen -- returned to Frankfurt to coach in the Eintracht academy. In 2016, with Andre Blake taking over between the pipes for Philadelphia, Nikolov returned to the Union as an assistant coach and helped Blake put together a stunning season that proved the Jamaican was one of the better shot-stoppers in MLS.
So why is this Eintracht legend returning to Philly this time?
"Ernst came in as the new Sporting Director and we talked, and I stayed in touch with Jim," Nikolov explained. "They asked me if I wanted to come back and I said, 'I love it!' and I hope I can help the team to play a good season."
Although Nikolov was a goalkeeper, he is not arriving as goalkeeping coach but as an assistant coach to Jim Curtin and the club's Director of Goalkeeping.
"I'm an assistant coach; my job is to help the head coach and to tell him what I see," Nikolov said simply when describing his role with the club going forward. "I know Jim, I know how he thinks soccer."
"He did a great job this season. I saw it from LA. All the games I've watched were pretty nice to watch soccer, and pretty successful. My job is to help Jim on the field."
In his return to Philly, Nikolov brings a host of new experiences from his year in Los Angeles. "It's a different team than the Philadelphia Union," the former Macedonian national team goalie said, "So it was a different working situation. I could watch how Sigi and Dominic work; they have been around the league forever. So I could learn how they handled difficult situations and tactics. It was a different experience, but it was a good one.
"I hope I can take a lot with me to help the Union."
As he joins a coaching staff looking to build on a 50-point season and develop a young core of talent, Nikolov emphasized his belief in being a lifetime learner. "You change every day because you learn every day," he proposed. "I take ideas, I take speeches from different coaches, I take whatever I can take. If I like it, I take it with me and try to put it on the field to help the team.
"The good thing," he continued, speaking about Philly's homegrowns, "Is that they are young and they want to learn. They'll listen.
"I knew Fontana before I left; he was in a preseason camp but got injured. These guys are hungry and they need experience, but the good thing is they want to learn. They'll do anything to get better and better.
"It's a big future for the young kids in Philadelphia."
And Oka Nikolov, in both of his new roles, is excited to help build that future.