I am about a quarter of the way through David Wilcove's "No Way Home," an accessible, fascinating account of animal migrations throughout the world. The book is helping me to appreciate the wonders of a number of species on their way to greener pastures (songbirds, herons, butterflies, dragonflies, and toads) that stop temporarily in our yard.
Perhaps because I am sedentary by nature, intentional movement -- particularly over vast areas -- fascinates me. This has been one of the elements of soccer as both a sport and profession that I have found intriguing. There is some migration in the American big four sports. I have been to winter ball sites and watched American players chase their MLB dreams when they are no longer in Kansas. And, certainly, stellar athletes in Latin America, the Caribbean, Korea, and Japan seek to ply their trade in odd settings in the minor leagues of American baseball. European and Chinese basketballers increase their relevance to the NBA and many American basketball players have shown a willingness to go to Europe (including Russia) and further afield to play professionally -- Antonio Lang is just one of many American basketball players who made a living playing in the professional leagues of the Philippines and Japan. Although a smaller geographic range applies, the same principles are generally true for hockey in North America.
But soccer is, truly, the world's sport and the movement of players in search of a chance to develop their skills is remarkable. Max Lipset's tales (as hosted by Brian Quarstad: postcard 1 and postcard 2) of his time in Bolivia with La Paz FC provide a small window into the lengths that hundreds of American soccer players are willing to go to augment their game and solidify their chances of making a living out of it. And that is only a tiny sliver of the world's players that pull up stakes to chase their dreams all over the globe.
I've been thinking more about this lately because of Real Maryland's announcements that Mason Trafford joined IFK Mariehamn in Finland and that he has now been joined by two other American players formerly of the USL2, Charleston's Lamar Neagle and Real Maryland alum Joe Funicello. Funicello is one of the few players on Real Maryland that our daughter has an autograph from and has been an object of interest because of his efforts to build a professional career in Italy (with Salernitana) and in Britain (with Corinthian Casuals) that reportedly led to a (failed) trial with Charlton. Funicello left Real Maryland to play for Thor Akureyri in Iceland this season and now has moved on to the warmer climes of Finland.
The club has announced that Trafford and Funicello are not the only players tied to the team to find a paycheck in Scandinavia. Kenneth Sola assisted Jonathan Borrajo in linking up with a Norwegian agent, eventually leading to a job with the Norwegian third tier side Hamarkameratene. While Trafford, Neagle, and Funicello have signed on in time to bolster a desperate effort to stave off relegation, Borrajo has joined a side that is currently top of the table and seeking promotion to the Adeccoligaen.
However it turns out, this has got to be pretty cool for both Borrajo and Trafford. They spent last year playing professional soccer on a high school football field and practicing on a recreational league field in College Park (side note: I had no idea that Real Maryland practiced within walking distance from our home; tough to explain how Israel Sesay has the drive and commitment to continue to stay the course after going from highly touted teenage prodigy prospect to playing and practicing alongside David Beckham and Landon Donovan to putting the ball into the net at the College Park Community Center). Translating that hard work and a tolerance of the absurd into gametime as a professional player in Norway and Finland is an impressive achievement.
By the same token, the move the other way is probably just as impressive. Sola came to Real Maryland from Stavanger IF following the club's relegation in 2009. He is now apparently back in Norway with a club recently promoted to the second tier of Norwegian soccer, Sadnes Ulf. And last year's captain, Gareth Evans, found his way to the Austin Aztex after playing for Cefn Druids and Wrexham in Wales and Charlton cup killer Northwich Victoria in Britain. While some of the conditions they played in back home might have been dire, they would have been hard-pressed to match the meager provisions allowed for in the USL2. And, yet, the football players still come. And they still go. And their journeys will continue to take them to the strangest places, all in service to a dream yet unrealized.