Sunday, October 31, 2010

Staying Up

A pleasant trip to The Mall this afternoon precluded me from following developments at The Valley this morning, but it appears that a bit of sanity has been restored with a win over the Owls and CAFC back in playoff position.

The good result for Charlton was complimented by similar success for the two Scottish sides that have grown near and dear to our hearts, as both Raith and Stranraer maintained their respective table topping form with wins in their league fixtures.

The Finnish football season concluded last week and despite my assumption that IFK Mariehamn would coast to safety, things did not go smoothly. IFK ultimately ensured a return to the top flight next season by finishing in 12th place, but left things close with a loss to KuPS in the season finale, caused, in part, by an own goal from Real Maryland's own Mason Trafford. Things would have been much worse, however, if not for fellow USL2 alum Lamar Neagle's goal against the team ultimately relegated -- FC Lahti -- in the previous fixture.

Managing a draw against the league's worst team salvaged IFK's season. And Neagle's goal was his second in two games, having also scored IFK's only goal in their loss at MyPa.

Ending the season with two losses and a draw was undoubtedly disappointing to the team and its supporters, but I remain impressed at how quickly Trafford, Neagle, and Giuseppe Funicello became important contributors to the side.

I will be curious to see whether any of the three will be invited to extend their stay in Finland -- if they have any interest -- as IFK's league position has now been assured. None of the three are apparently under contract beyond this season (only six players on the team have contracts that run into 2011).

IFK is reported to have the smallest budget of any team in the Veikkausliiga, a fact that is not surprising given that the club hails from the Aland Islands, population 27,500 (with the town of Mariehamn -- the islands' only city -- hosting 11,000 of that number). Pekka Lysski's squad has punched above its weight the last few seasons with finishes of fourth, fifth, and sixth place in three of the preceding four seasons. Indeed, although IFK has finished twelfth twice before since its promotion to the premier league in 2005, the fact that it is in the top division at all is beyond any reasonable explanation. The club apparently spent only one year in the Ykkonen after gaining promotion out of Kakkonen's South Group in 2003 and has not looked back since.

IFK's remarkable run must be due, in no small part, to Lysski's willingness to bring in talent from anywhere in the world. The team had players of nine different nationalities this past season, many of whom are using the experience as a springboard to bigger and better opportunities. The team's keeper, Kenya's Willis Ochieng (one of two Kenyans on this year's side), as just one example, is reported to be looking for opportunities in Sweden after his three year contract concluded at the close of the season.

Although there are unquestionably Americans playing abroad that are achieving amazing things on far grander scales -- as ably demonstrated by Maurice Edu's terrific goal against Inverness today and Clint Dempsey's brace at Craven Cottage (including a headed goal off a beautiful cross by Mexico's Carlos Salcido) -- Lamar Neagle's experience at IFK is singularly amazing because of everything inherent in the immediate transition from USL2 MVP to a little club in the Veikkausliiga from a little town nestled in the midst of little Swedish-speaking islands.

Jamie Hill of Yanks Abroad advises that if any of the three return to the Veikkausliiga next season, they may be joined by another American, as Etchu Tabe's RoPS won promotion to the premier league at the expense of Lahti. RoPS also features a Canadian, Kennedy Owusu-Ansah, who saw limited playing time last season. There appears to be no guarantee that either will return, as the club will focus first on resigning domestic players for the 2011 campaign.

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