For some players, the initial jump to Europe fails to lead to lasting success. The path to first-team minutes can be blocked or the series of developmental loans fails to pan out, often necessitating a return to domestic soil. Indiana Vassilev is enjoying a solid season with Major League Soccer expansion side St. Louis CITY FC following a few false starts since joining the professional ranks. The 22-year-old attacker has found consistent playing time and is enjoying the most productive stretch of his career.
Named for film character Indiana Jones and born in Savannah, Georgia to a family of former professional players, Vassilev played with Tormenta FC, Savannah United, Savannah Storm, and the IMG Academy, improving his skill set and “sharpening [his] game” at the Florida-based super-prep school. The young talent displayed strong intellect, high technical ability, and an ability to read situations well beyond his years. Aided by a Bulgarian passport, he joined the Aston Villa academy in 2017 after being scouted on a youth national team trip to France and quickly progressed from the U-18 level to the reserves.
“[Pursuing a soccer career away from home] is not easy,” Vassilev told Flyover Footy. “I don’t think it will be easy for anybody, especially if you’re close with family. I was really close with my mom, my dad, [and] my sister… We are professional athletes and that’s great, and I’m so grateful to be one, but at the same time, I left when I was 13, 14 years old, and I kind of missed those years… It was difficult… Even when I would play well, you still want to be with family… Obviously, it got me to where I am today, so I’m grateful I went through that process.”
In January of 2020, the club promoted Vassilev to the first team, playing for ten minutes in a 2-1 loss to Fulham in the FA Cup. His Premier League debut came 14 days later in a 1-1 draw with Brighton, becoming “the second-youngest American” to feature in the competition. He made six total appearances and was regularly included in the match-day squad, and the club rewarded him with a two-year contract through June of 2022. Local media praised his ability to bring “energy and momentum” with his work rate and intelligent runs.
The following season, Vassilev moved on loan to Burton Albion in League One and made 12 appearances, but his playing time dwindled in November, briefly featuring in a single match out of 11. Aston Villa recalled him and the next day sent him to Cheltenham Town for the remainder of the season. His struggles for consistency continued in League Two – he made 12 appearances, all as a substitute, for a combined total of 206 minutes.
In the summer of 2021, Vassilev was sent on loan to Inter Miami for the rest of the spring-to-fall MLS season. His career quickly regained momentum, playing in 21 matches for the Herons and scoring three goals. He managed to bag a game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Nashville SC, heading home a cross from Federico Higuain. The adjustment process was near seamless, albeit there was a slight struggle adapting to the “heat and humidity” of South Florida after spending several years competing in England.
Upon returning to Aston Villa, Vassilev made a few productive appearances with the reserves in the Premier League 2 but was once again sent on loan to Inter Miami in May, which was determined to be “the best possible option.” He continued to be utilized as a rotational starter and played in 27 league and cup matches. His best performance was one of his briefest, notching a brace in seven minutes in a 2-1 comeback victory over Minnesota United. Despite being a regular for the squad, the MLS side declined his contract option.
Last November, St. Louis CITY SC selected the midfielder in the 2022 MLS Expansion Draft and secured him on a permanent transfer from Aston Villa, signing the attacker to a two-year contract with option years for 2025 and 2026. Vassilev hit the ground running in the Mound City and has played in every match this season. In 33 appearances across all competitions, he has racked up a string of starts while contributing two goals and six assists. His standout performance came in a 4-0 romp over Sporting Kansas City, hitting for a brace and a helper.
Vassilev is eligible to represent the United States and Bulgaria. He has been a fixture for the former program at the youth level, playing in four matches in the run to the quarterfinal round at the 2017 U-17 World Cup. Lavovete (The Lions) has made several entreaties for him to consider a switch, including a recent appeal from senior manager Mladen Krstajić, but the reported refusal was “categorical” and his allegiance remains with his birth nation. The door is said to remain open, although his focus is on his club career.
87' - A beautiful ball by Duke and a textbook finish by Vassilev to tie up the game in the last minutes.— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) June 26, 2022
MIAvMIN | 1-1 pic.twitter.com/42BbI6Yqd1
Primarily an attacking midfielder, Vassilev can also line up at winger and defensive midfielder. He is described as being “comfortable and confident on the ball and fluid with his movement,” being praised as a “technically sound player” with “a wand of a left foot” who “flourishes in sides keen to get the ball down and play free-flowing football.” His best asset is perhaps the ability to work out of pressure and create space, both with and without the ball.
“Indy is the type of player that can contribute for us no matter where we ask him to play,” said St. Louis manager Bradley Carnell. “Indy has a great engine and he’s a smart soccer player. He knows how to surprise the opponent, how to jump them at the right time—not arrive too early, not arrive too late—and he covers a ton of distance. I enjoy working with Indy. We’ve always sort of spoken about all-arounders within our game model, and Indy, you can plug in at six, and all three of the 10 spots that we use up top. He’s a great character, and human being, and soccer player for us in our game model.”
The return to the United States and a permanent situation in St. Louis have provided Vassilev with a step up in his career, enabling him to receive first-team minutes at a crucial stage in his development. While no longer a young prospect, he is still at an age where significant upward mobility can happen, perhaps unlocking past potential that was always bubbling under the surface. With a crowded international calendar on the horizon, a talented midfielder for one of MLS’ top sides could find himself back in the USMNT picture.