Mariehamn has rarely seen a celebration as raucous as it did on Sept. 27, when the small city in Finland’s Åland Islands threw a party for its long-suffering professional soccer franchise.
Since the club’s inception in 1919, it had never won a Finnish Premier Division championship — until last month. Thousands of fans who waited nearly 100 years for a title gathered in the town square to sing songs and cheer on their heroes.
In the middle of this proud Finnish moment, soaking it all in, sat Brian Span, a Somers native and the only American on the IFK Mariehamn roster.
“The experience to win the Finnish Cup has been absolutely amazing,” Span said. “Since it’s such a small town and island, everyone has been really ecstatic for us. The celebrations were amazing with so many fans coming to support us and congratulate us on our triumph.”
So how did a kid who graduated from tiny North Salem High end up playing in for a little town in Finland?
Like so many aspiring soccer players, Span went wherever the opportunities took him. Soccer is the most popular sport on earth, and thus there are countless leagues around world with varying reputations. A player who is deemed unworthy in one league could be viewed as a perfect fit in another.
But there is a price to pay to fulfill one’s dreams, and in this profession, that often means working for little pay, far away from the comforts of home.
“We sign up for a life in which we have to always be prepared for the next move,” said Steward Ceus, a North Rockland graduate who has played in Finland, Major League Soccer and now the North American Soccer League.
“It is important to always believe in yourself and your abilities. In the professional world, any bad performance can potentially be your last. I know that I have to work hard every day to continue developing and reinforcing the tools that helped me reach this level.”
Five cities in five years
During his college days at St. John’s University, Kyle Hoffer was sure that he’d play Major League Soccer. Most American-born players dream of playing in the most competitive league on American soil, and its minimum salary of $60,000 provides much more financial stability than the lesser-known leagues.
St. John’s made the NCAA Final Four in Hoffer’s sophomore year and won the Big East conference when he was a junior, but his senior year was a struggle for the Red Storm and the interest from MLS clubs dried up.
“We thought we’d have three or four guys go to the MLS combine, but no one ended up going,” Hoffer said. “At that time, the (United Soccer League) was just starting up and I ended up with FC New York.”
Hoffer was named one of the captains for FC New York, but after just one season in 2011, the team dropped out of the league. He then spent the 2012 season with the Charleston Battery, the 2013 season with VSI Tampa Bay FC, the 2014 season with the Rochester Rhinos and the 2015 season with the Austin Aztecs — mixing in two stops in Finland along the way.
Following the 2015 season, at the age of 26, Hoffer decided to retire and join the coaching staff at Albertus Magnus.
“I’ve lived in five different cities and two different countries in the past five years, and I feel like I need some stability in my life and to stay in one place for a while,” Hoffer said. “I’ve had great experiences and I don’t regret any of it. How many people get to say that they’ve played professional soccer? It just came to a time when I got realistic. How many teams are looking for 26-year-olds who have been playing in the lower levels? I decided to hang up the boots this year and focus on the next stage of my career.”
‘I never cared about money’
Hoffer’s story isn’t unique.
Span played in Sweden, the MLS and the USL before landing with Mariehamn, while Ceus played in Finland, the MLS and the USL before earning the starting goalkeeper spot for the Atlanta Silverbacks in the NASL.
Thomas Spenser, a Hastings graduate, moved to England over the summer after graduating as a two-year captain from the University of Rhode Island. He’s been there for just over three months and has already bounced back and forth between two clubs in lower-level leagues, Wingate & Finchley and Maidenhead United.
“There were many frustrations,” Spenser said. “The most discouraging moment would be the Maidenhead manager saying he liked me, but he isn’t really looking to bring in a goalie to compete for the No. 1 spot; more of a permanent No. 2.”
After hearing that news from Maidenhead, Spenser returned to Wingate & Finchley, where he continues to fight for a job. But he has not be deterred.
“I never cared about the money,” Spenser said. “Money is just a bonus. Playing soccer has taught me things I never thought I would learn and has always been the most important thing to me. Ever since I was little, all I would do was play soccer, watch soccer, look up stuff about soccer and sleep soccer. I couldn’t image my life without the sport.”
Giovanni Galvano, the 2011 Journal News Rockland Player of the Year, was also anxious to try his luck overseas. After graduating from Pearl River in 2013, Galvano decided to put college on hold and move to Italy to tryout for Novara Calcio, a Primavera League team.
He had traveled to train with the club the previous summer, but when he returned looking to earn a spot, Galvano quickly realized that he was a long way from Rockland County.
“When I went back, it was a much more competitive environment,” he said. “They recruited from all over Europe and Africa. I spent about four months there before they let me go. It was definitely an eye-opener.”
Galvano stayed in Italy and joined the semi-pro club Lecco Calcio, but he eventually returned to the U.S. and enrolled at Nyack College, where he currently plays on the soccer team.
“As time passed, I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to pursue that or come home,” he said. “After about eight or nine months, I wasn’t happy. I decided I wanted to come home. I missed my family and this country. I felt like I was being called to do other things.”
‘They have to do everything that they can to get there’
At the moment, the poster child for local soccer players is West Nyack native Tommy McNamara, who has made a big splash as a midfielder for the first-year MLS club, New York City FC. But his success came after being left unprotected for expansion drafts by two other MLS clubs.
“It’s been a pretty incredible experience,” McNamara told The Journal News in August. “But it was a very long process, which was frustrating at times.”
It took some patience and perseverance, but locals such as Span, Ceus and McNamara have found homes — at least for the time being — while Spenser and Galvano are hoping for more chances in the future.
They’ve all seen enough to know that nothing is permanent, particularly for an American trying to prove himself in a sport that has been dominated by the rest of the world.
All they can do is be ready the next time that their number is called.
“It’s tough, especially when you first start out,” Hoffer said. “You aren’t making much money. There are guys with families, wives, kids, and their life depends on them making it. They have to do everything that they can do to get there. That’s sacrificing night life and doing everything else that you might want to do, but they don’t really have an option. If you want to make it, you have to do what you have to do to get your foot in the door.”