As many MLS teams stock up on Latin players with the expanded options for international players, more Americans are finding places to play not far from the Arctic Circle.
The trickle of American players forsaking Major League Soccer for opportunities abroad is turning into a river, albeit a sometimes ice-capped one.
Critics dump on MLS for the paltry salaries offered not only to most players coming out of college but to many veterans with years of experience. Nobody expects MLS to outbid English Premier League club Fulham for Eddie Johnson or Clint Dempsey, for example, but when Joseph Ngwenya and Nate Jaqua leave league champion Houston to sign with unheralded Austrian clubs, well, that piques criticism. So does the decision by University of California midfielder Andrew Jacobson, a second-round SuperDraft pick last January, to turn down four-time league champion D.C. United for a modest French team.
Yet neither Britain nor northern Europe is the most popular destination. Scandinavian countries Denmark, Sweden and especially Norway, an oil-rich nation whose teams are flush with television money, are scooping up players faster than MLS can strike them off prospective draft lists.
In Europe, there's more money, yes, but there's also more intensity, more passion, more game.
"You need to get those three points, either home or away," says Ramiro Corrales, who left MLS after the 2005 season to play in Norway and was most likely coming back to the league. "Any regular game over there is like a playoff game in MLS, you've got to leave everything on the field to get those points. Every game is important. It's not like MLS, with playoffs and all that. They take every game very seriously."
The Scandinavian countries have turned into havens for a wide variety of players: college products, those ignored by MLS and those hotly pursued; league veterans in search of something different, and others whose European careers ran into roadblocks elsewhere.
Here are a few examples.
RED AND WHITE DYNAMITE. Aalborg is a city of 170,000 people in north-central Denmark which is home to two-time Danish SuperLeague champion AaB. The Aalborg Stadion can accommodate 13,374 people, less than what MLS averaged even before the arrival of David Beckham last year.
Yet more often than not, on game days the stadium is buzzing and awash in the team's colors of red and white. In the days leading up to the match, a player - especially one reared in the often benign existence of MLS - feels an edgy anticipation no matter how far removed he is from the stadium or training field.
"It's exciting," says former Galaxy and Quake defender Danny Califf, who let his contract expire after the 2005 season as Anschutz Entertainment Group prepared to move San Jose to Houston. Califf had another move in mind. "There's a level of excitement with the fans and in the town and it translates onto the field. It makes you feel like a professional athlete, that what you do is important to people."
Califf at first headed to Roda JC in the Netherlands for a trial, and while there got word of an opportunity in Denmark, from which players often make the jump to the Dutch League or German League. He and AaB seemed a good fit, the league's physical style suited his abilities, and so was struck a deal. Adjusting to Aalborg itself took much longer.
"The first six months were extremely difficult, not just for me, but for the wife and the kids," says Califf of his wife Erin and their two children. "We were in LA and San Jose, so we weren't in the coldest places and both my wife and I grew up in Southern California.
"Our first winter was the worst Danish winter in over 50 years. It was classic. There was snow on the ground from when we got there in January until mid-April. We sat back after that first six months and thought, 'Do we really want to be here?'"
They stuck it out and as Califf turns 28 this month he's contemplating what lies ahead as well as what he left behind. "I was 24 when I left," he says. "I really felt that if I didn't make the move at that point and re-signed with MLS, my opportunity to go to Europe would have been much smaller or almost nonexistent. It was good timing."
His contract expires this summer, so again the timing might be good. He hopes to emulate the switch of U.S. teammate Heath Pearce, who left Norwegian club FC Nordsjælland last summer to sign with Hansa Rostock of the German Bundesliga.
When Aalborg played FC Nordsjælland last season, U.S. head coach Bob Bradley attended. Both Pearce and Califf have since been called into national team camps, and Califf played against Switzerland and South Africa. He came into camp this year, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for the Sweden and Mexico matches.
"I picked him up at the airport, we had a good discussion and he saw the game," says Califf of Bradley's visit. "It was nice for me to have him watch and find out what Danish football is all about. I believe he came away with a good impression and that's all I can ask for."
The Danish contingent includes several players in contention for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Goalkeeper Tally Hall went to Esbjerg right out of San Diego State, forward Lee Nguyen joined Randers FC after struggling at PSV Eindhoven, and midfielder Will John also went to Randers after scarcely playing for Kansas City.
NORWEGIAN LIGHT. Directly north of Denmark is Norway, the Scandinavian country most heavily populated by American pro soccer players and a seemingly unlikely destination for another Californian.
"A lot of people were surprised when I left and thought I wasn't going to make the move, but I had the opportunity and I'm glad I went," says Corrales, a Salinas native who left MLS after nine seasons to play for SK Brann, which won the league title last November.
Much of the motivation is money. Norwegian second division clubs must pay a full-time player at least the equivalent of $45,000 per season, which easily surpasses the MLS minimum salary ($32,000), not to mention the $11,700 or $17,700 stipends for developmental players.
Former Rapids and Revs goalkeeper Adin Brown, another NorCal product, has played for Aalesund since 2005. During the January transfer window, Pat Noonan, a native of St. Louis, joined his former Rev teammate and nearly doubled his salary, from $225,000 to about $400,000.
Ex-FCD defender and 2002 No. 1 SuperDraft pick Chris Gbandi went to second division club FK Haugesund in a transfer worth nearly $100,000. A few years ago, Odd Grenland bought Rapids defender Nat Borchers for $365,000, and Valerenga recently paid nearly $750,000 for capable yet uncapped goalkeeper Troy Perkins. Ex-Crew attacker Brian West has played for Fredrikstad since 2004.
"The salaries are far below EPL or Germany or Holland, but it's not uncommon for a Premier League player in Norway to make between $200,000 and $300,000 a year," says Jan Schiefloe, a FIFA licensed agent born in Norway and based in the U.S. "I don't know anybody in Norway who makes $30,000. That's why players drafted are looking for opportunities overseas."
And it's not only drafted players who are finding jobs in Norway. University of San Francisco defender Rob Valentino went to New England in the first round; Dons teammate Chris Rodd didn't wait for the draft and signed with second division Bryne in a deal brokered by Schiefloe. Bryne also snatched Creighton keeper Matt Allen, who'd been drafted by the Galaxy.
"I get calls from agents here who want me to find clubs in Norway or Sweden rather than signing with MLS teams, simply because they have to go into camp and they don't even have a contract and have to prove themselves," says Schiefloe. "Then they might get a developmental contract or minimum-salary contract. They say, 'Why should I do that and be stuck with a lousy contract for four years?'
"Some of the college players, they're not going to be stars over there but they have a chance to play regularly in Division 2 and some of them make it to Division 1 after a year or two of development."
Another agent, Patrick McCabe of First Wave Sports, negotiated the Perkins deal, among others, including those of Borchers and ex-MetroStar forward Olivier Occean to Odd Grenland. Occean, a French-Canadian, has since moved up the Tippeligaen ladder to SK Lillestrom.
"American goalkeepers, obviously, have a good reputation in Europe, from the success of those who've played in England," said McCabe of current EPL keepers Tim Howard, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann. "Most teams want goalscorers and left-sided players, like it is in the rest of the world.
"But the level in Scandinavia is well within reach for good Canadian and American players. They make more money, in some cases a lot more, and the chance to play in European competition, which a lot of these teams do, is very attractive to them."
Norway hasn't panned out for Borchers as well as Corrales. Odd Grenland took a sizable loss when it sold him back to MLS for slightly under $100,000. But foreign players - Schiefloe has placed seven Costa Ricans in Norway in addition to North Americans - are attractive to Norwegian clubs, since domestic players can be relatively expensive.
"If you want to buy a player from a Norwegian club, the prices are outrageous," says Schiefloe, in reference to the fact Norwegian clubs get high prices from foreign teams, so they prefer to sell outside the border.
Rather than rely on an extensive player development system, teams like Rosenberg let players stay at local clubs until they are 17 or 18, then buy them with the hopes of honing their skills and getting a few productive seasons before selling them on to rich foreign clubs.
The Tippeligaen has also changed its rules regarding non-EU players. Each team can sign up to 11 for its regular 25-man roster. Most European countries are permitted only four, though many leagues allow a player with several years' experience to count as a domestic.
"It's a lot cheaper for a Norwegian club, even in the Premier League or Division 2, to actually buy foreign players," says Schiefloe. "Inexpensive Africans, Canadians, Americans, a little bit of South Americans and Eastern Europeans as well. You see a lot of Icelandic players, "and Swedish players are inexpensive, because the salary level is quite a bit lower in Sweden."
SWEDISH STRIKER. The lower prices in Sweden didn't stop Hammaby IF from outbidding MLS for ex-Boston College and U.S. under-23 forward Charlie Davies last year. He left BC after his junior season, having scored 24 goals in 36 games.
MLS didn't lowball Davies. It offered him a five-year contract worth more than $1 million total, one of the richest deals ever offered a college player. He won't say what he earns at Hammarby, which every winter trains at Home Depot Center, since the club is owned by AEG.
"I've always watched European soccer and loved it; loved the atmosphere, loved the culture," says Davies, who battled through some rough months before finishing the 2007 season with a hat trick against GAIS. "It's just the best thing for me to get better. The competition, the style, it's everything I looked forward to doing, so it was an easy choice for me. I just think it's worked out the best."
For Davies, steeled by harsh winters growing up in New Hampshire, acclimating to European life didn't hinge on months of bitter chill and ever-present snow clouds. With no pro experience, the determination and drive required to train at full tilt just to get a few minutes on weekends severely stretched his sinews and psyche. Every day, the forwards work on creating chances, finding and making space, and finishing.
"We did a lot of creative, different things, and focus on your runs and timing and all the important phases of finishing," says Davies. "So for me it was completely different and finally I got used to it."
Those three goals against GAIS were his only league goals of the season, but he did net one in the Intertoto Cup. Progress for an American college player is measured in small increments and staggering phone bills for calls back home, at least until new friendships can be formed.
"You really can't take days off, which coming from college and all the teams I used to play for, you could get away with that as long as you performed on the field," says Davies. "For me it was a big transition to really roll up the sleeves and work hard and earn the respect of your teammates and coaches and go through the whole process of proving that you're a quality player."
In February, Davies met up with Sacha Klejstan and a few of their under-23 teammates in Southern California during Hammarby's visit. Then it was back to Sweden, and back to work.
"In the beginning the phone bills were pretty bad but towards the end I got used to it and I've made a lot of good friends and kept myself busy," he says, "so it's been a good time."
(This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)