CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Tuesday, May 14, 2013
With over a hundred professional teams in Scandinavia, the region has long been a hotbed for American players fresh out of college, looking for a chance on the professional stage.
While not always the path to life in the limelight and the comforts of Mediterranean vacations, there is enough opportunity to provide a stepping stone to more prestigious leagues, and in some cases, a way back home.
Kevin Sawchak got his start playing soccer in Georgia, before becoming a standout player at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Sawchak was consistently among the team leaders in offensive statistics, and when the time came to pursue professional soccer, he headed north to Montreal for a trial with the Impact. Sawchak's time in Montreal did not last long, but another door was opened along the way. A former coach at UAB, Mike Keeney, contacted him and asked him to come over to Finland.
"He (Keeney) said "hey, come over here for a trial, and we'll see how things go," so I was over there for two weeks and it went well and they said they wanted me to stay, I just had to clear a visa problem."
Sawchak began his journey with MYPA in Finland's top flight, and seemed to be settling in well at first. However, he began to struggle as the season got underway, as the changes in life and tactics of the game became mounting problems.
"I did really well the first couple weeks, I think. I was really excited to be there, so the first couple weeks went good [sic], but once, you know, life kicked in and I was there permanently, it took me awhile to get used to the change in game. Completely different over here compared to college, it's a much more tactical game. I had to really get used to that and the style of play here."
When Keeney took over the reins at EIF in the third-tier Kakkonen, he was quick to offer Sawchak the opportunity to play there, signing him just as the transfer window was closing. Sawchak was unfamiliar with the team, but took the opportunity to get steady playing time, and ended up fitting in well with a roster that reminded him a lot of college, including having a couple of American teammates.
"Once I signed on with them I didn't know much about the team, but once I got there and saw Garry (Lewis, from UNC) was there and Josh (Mulvany, from Kentucky) joined us, it was a really, really nice year for me last year. It was so comfortable, it was almost like college because we had so many foreign players there and we all lived together and stuck together for the whole season."
The transition to EIF from MYPA meant that Sawchak had to drop a couple levels of play, but the trade-off in playing time was worth it. He credits his growth as a player to both his initial struggle at MYPA, where he had to learn the hard way that hard work alone was not enough to cut it anymore.
"I think that first year really helped me even though I didn't get many games with MYPA. It really helped me become a pro, learning how to take care of my body. I just kind of approached the game different from when I first got there. When I first got there I thought if I just worked hard all the time and trained extra and everything, it would translate to the game, but really it's more about working smarter, than harder, to be honest."
With these lessons in hand, Sawchak found himself in a position to succeed with EIF, and he stepped into a leading role with the team, playing the second most minutes of any field player. Helping him along the way was a switch in position, going from the midfield to right back.
"When I went down to (EIF), it was a transition for me and I took on a bigger role with the team there. I played every game of the season, I had no injuries. It was a really good season for me. I moved positions as well, I moved to right back- it was my first time playing there in that position. To be honest, it might have been the best move of my career, moving to the back line."
Despite playing in the back now, Sawchak maintained his attacking ability that made him a standout midfielder at UAB, and it reinforced EIF's already potent offense. The team had a league best 75 goals and +41 goal differential, despite only finishing fourth on the season.
"I think I have to work to my strengths. I'm not a very big guy but I'm quick, I have a good engine and can run all day ... I have to work on my defensive game but the team can count on me to get forward all the time. I can become an extra option in the attack."
After having a strong season with EIF, it was time to move up a tier in Finland's league system. Sawchak moved to Ykkonen side FC KooTeePee, a team that was interested in him last season before an injury, and now with a new coach and a philosophy of rebuilding and getting everyone on the same page.
"They had a coaching change this season, our coach is now Sami Ristila ... when I came here, I fit in pretty quickly and he saw I was a player who bought into his system and he thought he could use. It's a good fit for me, I'm happy to be somewhere the coach likes me and is happy to have me on the team."
Despite his natural proclivity towards the midfield, last season's move to right back has opened up new possibilities for Sawchak, individually and as a professional. With the experience he gained at right back and his ability to attack, he presents an interesting game piece for new coach Ristila, who used the pre-season to try to figure out where best to use Sawchak to utilize his skillset.
"He's used me as a winger, he's used me as a right back, as a left back. He knows I played as a number 10 in college, we're really trying to figure that out right now. We'll have to see ... where they think I fit best."
KooTeePee came in seventh out of 10 last season, two games off the pace for finishing the top half. One of the reasons for their drop was a terribly inefficient offense, scoring only 30 goals in 27 games, finishing with a -3 differential. Sawchak will provide Ristila with new attacking opportunities, which is a reason for being signed.
"I think they did like what I brought to the team, I think I'm something different from what they have. I'm an attacking player that likes to run at guys and likes to serve a lot of balls ... they're trying to change things here and I think they're looking at a plan for the next couple years to go back up to the Veikkausliiga and I'm hoping I can contribute like I did last year."
Though Sawchak is enjoying his time playing in Europe, his career ambitions lay more in line with returning home and making it in MLS, though he is also open to the possibility of playing elsewhere in Europe when the team is right to depart Finland.
"I'm really interested in getting back to the MLS. I know it's a growing league and it's getting better and better every year, more competitive. Hopefully I can have a couple more good seasons in Europe and then I can make a move to a bigger football country around Finland, maybe Sweden or Norway, or a move back to MLS would be ideal as well. I think there the players are taken care of really well and the money is getting better, and the league's really competitive. I still keep up with MLS, I'm watching pre-season videos checking up on all my buddies in MLS. That's where I want to end up."