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Our men in Oulu

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Midfielder Dominic Oppong and goalkeeper David Monsalve played their youth soccer together in Toronto. They were teammates at FC Edmonton. Now, in Finland, the pair have reunited once again…

Dominic Oppong and David Monsalve were kids when they came up through the ranks of Toronto’s Azzurri SC. Later, they crossed paths again, as teammates at FC Edmonton. And, this year, they’re both in Finland, trying to get AC Oulu promoted to that country’s first division.

For Monsalve, it’s his second season in Oulu, located in northern Finland, on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia that separates the Finns from the Swedes. He returned to Europe after parting ways with FC Edmonton; that split came after a disappointing 2012 season which saw the Toronto native relegated to the bench after just a few starts in goal.

After entrenching himself as Oulu’s keeper of choice in 2013, Monsalve did a little squad-building of his own. This year, he was joined by his old friend. After parting ways with FC Edmonton,also in 2012, Oppong was out of soccer for a year. But, thanks to some encouraging words from Monsalve, the central midfielder was invited to Finland in 2014 with his son and fiancée in tow, and his stuttered career was restarted.

“It was all David,” says Oppong. “When he got here last year, he recommended my name to the club. I sent them my information, they liked what they saw and they offered me a contract.

“Because I’ve been out of the game for a year, at the beginning it was kind of difficult to get my legs under me. And it was a different system, new players, it was an adjustment period. But, for the last two months, I’ve been doing pretty well, in my opinion.”

It’s interesting that Monsalve recommended Oppong, because it’s almost as if he’s paying a favour forward. That’s because Monsalve came to Oulu thanks to a recommendation from Canadian striker Frank Jonke, who enjoyed a standout career in Finland. But, this past year, Jonke left Finland for FC Edmonton — in essence, trading places with Monsalve.

But the keeper was not a stranger to the northern European nation. Monsalve first played in Finland from 2009-2011with Inter Turku and won the Finnish Cup with the team. He was part of a Canadian invasion of players that included striker Tosaint Ricketts, attacker Randy Edwini-Bonsu, keeper TomerChencinski, defender Mason Trafford and Jonke.

So, after spending two seasons at FC Edmonton, going back to Finland was a natural fit.

Monsalve says there are several reasons that Canadians can thrive in Finland, from the

Dominic Oppong, in blue, finds himself surrounded as he waits for a cross in Finnish second-division action. PHOTO: JOUKO KYLMÄOJA

league’s need to import foreign talent to the fact that our countries share a bond — that we’re both hockey nations who feel our soccer cultures are underrepresented.

“The foreigner rule is very loose, that’s one reason. The quality of football is close to North America. The style is quite similar. To be 100 per cent honest, the football culture isn’t very strong here. So they usually look to go somewhere else. Compare it to Sweden, the football culture is so strong there; there are so many youth teams in one region, they have plenty of players to choose from. The fact there’s not that much population in Finland, there’s not that many kids to choose from when they get to the professional level. So they have to look at other places. Guys like Frank, myself, Tos, we came around the same time, we opened a lot of doors. Tos was successful in some good European games and was able to move [to Romania] because of that. Frank came here and made a really great career for himself. Everybody knew who he was and he excelled. Randy came in and killed it. I came in and I won a championship. I think it said a lot for Canadian players.

“Finland kind of feels for us, in the sense that we are both hockey countries. But, we shouldn’t be ignored in terms of soccer — and we’ve proven it. I don’t think there’s been one Canadian player who has come to Finland and done poorly.

“They’re smart enough not to ignore the fact there might be a diamond in the rough there. They know there are good players in Canada, it’s just a matter of finding them. All the guys that I mentioned, we all know each other. Frank recommended me here last year. I recommended Dom; myself and Tos, when we originally came over, we came from the same agent. That connection with Canadian football players is huge, too — the loyalty we have for each other.”

Monsalve was part of the Toronto FC roster in 2007, and got into one MLS game. He’s played for Canada at various youth levels and has one cap for the national side. When we talk, it’s the end of August; we are two weeks away from Canada’s friendly against Jamaica at BMO Field. In Oulu, with both Monsalve and Oppong getting regular minutes, the team is in the midst of an eight-game undefeated streak, and is six points back of the second place. The problem is that the current Finnish setup only allows for one team to be promoted to the top flight.

“The coach finally has the players in the right positions; because of that, we’ve been working really well,” says Monsalve. “And, to be honest, we’ve been quite unfortunate with a few games, to say the least. That being said, we were tying those games, not losing them. But had we been winning them, we’d have been contending for promotion, for sure.”

And even though Oulu is hot in August, Monsalve and Oppong know that neither will be getting a call from national-team coach Benito Floro anytime soon. In fact, Monsalve has yet to speak to the coach who took over the national program in 2013. It’s clear that Monsalve is ambivalent about not being called for Canada duty; he says he is frustrated, but he’s also quick to make sure that I don’t think he’s calling out Floro or his staff. He says he understands Floro’s decisions but, even over a Skype chat, you can feel the tension.

David Monsalve PHOTO: JOUKO KYLMÄOJA

“To be honest with you, the way that it’s feeling, I’m quite frustrated that I haven’t gotten a look from Benito Floro. It’s frustrating, but I understand; I don’t expect anyone to believe in myself more than I do. At the time, when he came in, I wasn’t playing at the time, so I understand. Then I started playing, but there were guys ahead of me, playing at a higher level and who were called before.

“But now it’s at a point where some guys, most guys, Canadian keepers, I don’t know one that’s playing regularly, to be honest. And it’s not to say that because no one else is playing and I am, that I deserve a call. I’m not saying that. I would like a call, I would like a look, because I’m passionate about playing for my country. I’ve been there before and I’ve been there throughout my youth career. It’s something I am dying to be a part of. All my friends are on the team and I feel a passion for the national team.

“I would like a conversation with the national team, to see where I am at, if there is anything that can be done. I’m willing to sacrifice a year or two to make sure I am in the right environment to get that call.”

And, a day after the interview, when the roster for the Jamaica friendly is released, Quillan Roberts is one of the three keepers named. Roberts is a teenager who Toronto FC had loaned out to its USL affiliate in Wilmington Delaware. Roberts gets the call, while Monsalve wonders.

The relationship (or, non-relationship) with Floro is different than what Monsalve had with former national-team coach Stephen Hart, who fell on the sword after the infamous 8-1 loss to Honduras that eliminated Canada from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

“I can’t speak to how it is now, but the relationship I had with Steve Hart, [technical director] Tony Fonseca, [former Canadian U-20 coach] Nick Dasovic, and having gone through the process of the youth national team and being familiar with them, I felt comfortable reaching out to them and they felt comfortable reaching out to me. Even if I wasn’t in the plans, they’d let me know and give me some advice. Maybe the new coaches don’t have the same familiarity with the players because of their lack of experience at our national-team level. It’s different circumstances. I am sure the new coaches of the national team have their eyes open, I am sure they know what’s going on, that they know my name and everybody else’s. It’s a tough job. He [Floro] has had the opportunity to see people, he’s liked his people and you can’t argue with that. They are good players, they are there for a reason. If he gives me a look great, if not I have to get on with my career.”

Oppong is more blunt. For him, he knows that being in the second division in Finland isn’t like putting a neon sign above his head.

“For me, it’s different than David, because I am an outfield player. There are more players in my position who are playing in the bigger leagues. So I personally don’t expect my name to be out there because I don’t think I am playing at a high enough level for them to be considering me.”

The Case for Finland

Even though Monsalve and Oppong agree that soccer is underrepresented in Finnish culture, its development is still years ahead of where Canada needs to be.  In their eyes, what holds Finland back from qualifying for World Cups or European Championships isn’t the per capita talent, it’s the demographics. Because Finland is a small northern nation of 5.4 million (perspective: The Greater Toronto Area has more people than all of Finland), its talent pool is only a fraction the size of Germany, France or Russia. No matter how well the kids are trained, the law of averages works against the Finns.

”I always say that top league in Finland is somewhere between NASL and MLS,” says Monsalve. “It’s not quite as good as MLS, but it still has more than what NASL has to offer. I think the thing here is that the kids grow up with the football. They are used to the football and they learn football real easily. They understand that they are coming every day to train to get better. And, because they have the fundamentals down at an early age, I think coaches work on tactics and education of football at an earlier age than in Canada.

“The only unlucky thing about Finland is that they’re stuck in a region with incredible teams. So, they never get past the second round of qualifying for major tournaments. If they were in CONCACAF, in terms of quality, they would compete.”

But the pair feel that, while Finland’s youth coaches are better at teaching the fundamentals to the kids, their experience in Europe has shown them just how far their old Azzurri coach, Carmine Isacco, was ahead of the curve.

In hindsight, they realize just how in-step Isacco’s methods were with the way the game is taught in Europe. Isacco now coaches at York University — and both Oppong and Monsalve feel their coach and mentor deserves a bigger job and more responsibility.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #3.

“To be honest, anyone in Toronto who plays soccer at a decent level has been coached by Carm at some time,” says Monsalve. “Carmine didn’t just teach us about soccer, but he taught us about reality. If you weren’t good enough, you weren’t playing… Even though I wanted to be playing and I felt I should have been playing in some instances, Carmine let me know that I wasn’t ready yet. So I just kept training, and it gives you that disappointment that you need to feel in order to let you know that you want it bad.”

Oppong says Isacco’s principles were echoed by the former coaches at FC Edmonton; the Dutch trio of Dwight Lodeweges, Harry Sinkgraven and Hans Schrijver all had the chance to hammer home the same lessons that Isacco had first brought to the midfielder.

“Here in Finland, you are developed fundamentally from an early age. That’s something we were fortunate to have from Carmine in the youth system. He taught us a lot of things that Harry, Hans and Dwight put emphasis on when we joined Edmonton. Passing to the right foot, combination play, functional movement. Carmine was the key to my soccer development.

“I am forever grateful for what Carmine taught me. Not just soccer, but life lessons, too. I have a lot of love for Carmine Isacco. I am surprised that he hasn’t got a better coaching job in the Canadian Soccer Association. If he ends up getting a professional team, I’m pretty sure that team would be a winner within a year or two.”

Unlike Monsalve, who has now spent five years in Finland over the course two stints in the country, Oppong had to adjust to life in a new country with a strange language. His family joined him and embraced the change.

“Yeah, I got my fiancee and my son, Max, with me here. I came in early March, and they came in the middle of April. They love the culture. My son is learning Finnish. He’s fallen in love with soccer because he’s around it all day. Going to my games and the atmosphere at the games has helped push him towards being a huge soccer fan.”

But, by the time you read this, Max will be back in Canada for kindergarten. He’ll be taking his classes in English, not staying in Finland. But his teacher might forgive him if he shows a penchant for doubling down on vowels every time he tries to write a word.

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