DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, May 25, 2011
On the eve of one of the most important games in the history of Finnish club IFK Mariehamn, central defender Mason Trafford is confident his teammates are up to the grueling tests awaiting them in the next months.
Barely one month into their 2011 Veikkausliiga campaign, Trafford and his teammates are already on the verge of what would be a major accomplishment for the young squad, as they have fought through the early rounds of the Finnish Cup to reach Thursday's semifinal match against fellow top-flight team KuPS.
"This is maybe one of the biggest games in my club's history," the Florida-born Trafford told YA, "probably hand in hand with when they were getting promoted from the [Ykkönen] into the top league."
The Islanders have only been in the top division since 2005, and have never made the final of Finland's domestic cup competition, although this is the second straight year they have appeared in the last four.
"It's pretty exciting if we can get to the final," he continues. "The first goal is obviously to win the final so we could automatically qualify [for Europe], but even if we were to lose the final we'd still have a decent chance."
With a history of play in the lower divisions of the country, the team has never qualified for continental competition, which has clearly become a driving force for the team during their current six-year stay in the Veikkausliiga.
"HJK, which is the best team in Finland almost every year, is on the other side of the draw so they are most likely going to advance to the final," he explains.
"If [they] win the league, which I'm sure most people are betting on them doing, then we'd automatically get a berth in the Europa League no matter if we win the final or not, sort of like what Stoke City got when they played Man City in the FA Cup final."
Standing in their way is eastern team Kuopion Palloseura, more succinctly known as KuPS, against whom they have already had a warm-up in league play one week before. While Mariehamn did lose that game on the road by a 2-1 score, Trafford feels that the experience of playing against them so soon before their pivotal Cup tilt will benefit his team more than their opponents.
"I think it's positive, actually," he speaks of the close proximity of the two games. "With our team, we have assembled a group of guys where not everybody has played yet in the Finnish league don't really know quite what to expect yet from all the teams. We've now seen [KuPS] and all the guys know that they are very beatable. We just have to go out and do the job on Thursday and we'll be in the final."
Their first meeting saw KuPS score a second-half winner after the two teams had drawn even through the first 45, however the former Vancouver Whitecap thinks that the final result is not at all indicative of any real gap between the two teams.
"In that game, we had a really strong first half, maybe the best we've played all year, and we could have scored five or six goals before halftime," he asserts. "They came out pretty fired up in the second half and took it to us in the second half similar to how we took it to them in the first."
"It was really frustrating for us because we felt like we [played well] and they didn't, and somehow they got two goals and we only got one," he admits of the team's reaction to overall result, however looks at it as a source of motivation for the upcoming meeting which will carry far more weight. "The most important game is the Cup game on Thursday, so everybody is fired up now for revenge."
Heading into the semifinal, Mariehamn - as well as every other team in Finland's top flight - has had an unexpectedly unusually busy schedule which has involved two rounds of games per long weekend.
"Since two teams dropped out of the Finnish League, the schedule suddenly went from a 26-game season to a 33-game season about one week before the first game," Trafford explains. "The past two weeks have been absolutely crazy. We've not even been able to have a real training session for two weeks."
The ejection of clubs AC Oulu and Tampere United from the top flight - and the complete disbandment of the latter - has reduced the Veikkausliiga to just 12 teams, prompting both a last-minute delay to the start of the season as well as the lengthening of the number of games.
For Mariehamn, the schedule of having to usually head out for an away game once per week is complicated by their relatively remote locale, in the Åland islands off the southwest corner of the country.
"What makes it more difficult is our crazy travel schedule," he continues. "Trying to get to these away games [takes awhile] because we're on this island, so we're always boating or taking the bus."
In spite of it all, the one-time UNLV Rebel feels the club is in a strong position for the current season, and has the tools to be one of the standard bearers in the 12-team division.
"We believe we have a real decent shot at the top five," he speaks of the team's outlook for 2011. "We have a really strong team this year, especially with the four new guys we just signed [from disbanded Tampere United], which really rounded out our roster really nicely."
"Every team can be beaten, but 33 games will be more of a marathon now, and it will depend on who stays fit and which teams have injuries."
The Islanders are well on their way to that goal, so far placing fourth in the league through six games, however their longer-term goals are temporarily taking a back seat in deference to Thursday's decisive battle.
"Everybody is looking to this game on Thursday," he concludes, "every knows it means a lot for the club and for the players individually, and everybody thinks in the back of their mind that if we win one or two more games, we could be playing in Europe next year."
"It's pretty intense for the guys right now."