The popular “Great American Melting Pot” metaphor tells of the opportunities awaiting people of all nationalities in the United States while enhancing the country’s rich cultural tapestry.
In the landscape of collegiate soccer, the claim is just as valid today as it was in that century-old propaganda, and both the players and the sport are benefitting tremendously. Programs such as Ohio State, Michigan and even Memphis have tapped the rich Canadian pipeline for talent with great success, but nowhere in women’s soccer is a more diverse selection on display than at Florida State University.
In his 10th year as head coach at Florida State, Mark Krikorian’s Seminoles currently feature seven delegates from six different countries. With a quarter-century’s experience under his belt as a college coach, Krikorian’s revolving door of foreign talent is far beyond the experimental stage. Instead, it has become a tried-and-true blueprint for his success. It’s an approach that precedes his time in Tallahassee, stretching back to his formative coaching days in the early 90’s.
“I was coaching a Division II school a long time ago called Franklin Pierce and it became real clear to me that I couldn’t find the most elite level players in the country,” Krikorian said. “They weren’t going to come to that Division II school in rural New Hampshire, but I thought, you know, it’s a big world, it’s the world game, maybe there are some kids from other parts of the world who would like to improve their English and have an opportunity for a university degree, so I got on a plane one day and went to Sweden and had the great pleasure of meeting at that time Pia Sundhage and made the nice connection with her, and that’s probably where it all started about 20 years ago.”
Krikorian had great success at Franklin Pierce, winning consecutive D-II national championships in 1994 and 1995, before moving up to Division I with the University of Hartford in the late 90’s. There he continued to recruit from across the Atlantic, bringing in players from the Netherlands, Norway and Germany to help lead his Hawks squad to three straight conference championships and an NCAA Elite Eight appearance in 1999.
With the dawning of a new era for women’s soccer in the U.S., Krikorian left Hartford in 2001 to manage the Philadelphia Charge of the WUSA and its unprecedented quality of both domestic and international players. In addition to gathering a bounty of players from abroad – including German captain Doris Fitschen, dazzling French forward Marinette Pichon, former college player of the year Anne Mäkinen from Finland and English legend Kelly Smith – Krikorian also strengthened his relationship with Sundhage, taking the Swede under his wing as an assistant coach.
Following the collapse of the inaugural pro league, Krikorian returned to the college ranks in 2005 with Florida State and immediately set out to find the right players to fit his vision of a sophisticated, attractive style of possession soccer. With a huge turnover from the outgoing squad, Krikorian had plenty of opportunities to implement his successful international strategy, taking over a team that lost nearly all of its starters.
Making an immediate stamp on the program’s persona, Krikorian added six international players to the Seminole roster – including German star Viola Odebrecht, a player who already had years of professional experience in the Frauen-Bundesliga as well as a World Cup gold medal on her resumé – and a freshman forward from Japan named Mami Yamaguchi. In his first season with the team, Florida State returned to the College Cup and finished the year ranked fourth in the nation despite entering the season unranked in the preseason polls.
In 2007, Yamaguchi led the country in points on her way to a MAC Hermann-winning season in which the Japanese international also set single-season records for points, goals and assists. Those hauls still stand in the Seminole record book. That same year, Finnish import Sanna Talonen won the Soccer America Freshman of the Year award and the Seminoles made their first appearance in the NCAA national championship game, losing to USC.
The Seminoles returned to the College Cup Final again in 2013, losing to UCLA in overtime, but the team is again on the precipice of another appearance in the final as FSU head into their fourth consecutive College Cup this weekend. On his current roster, Krikorian has Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Berglind Thorvaldsdottir from Iceland, Irish national team starter Megan Campbell, Germany’s Isabella Schmid, super-sub Marta Bakowska-Mathews representing England, Hikaru Murakami from Japan and Finnish freshman Emma Koivisto.
Four of those players, Brynjarsdottir, Campbell, Schmid and Koivisto, are locks in the starting lineup while Thorvaldsdottir and Bakowska-Mathews have made tremendous contributions from the bench. Look down FSU’ s scoring stats and it is clear that much of their offense is driven by the large international contingent, accounting for six out of the top 10 points leaders. An unstoppable force in her attacking midfield position, Brynjarsdottir leads the team in points (38) and goals (16) and looks like a worthy MAC Hermann finalist. Tenacious left back Megan Campbell’s 12 assists are second-best for FSU while she and Koivisto also bookend the nation’s third-best defense. Thorvaldsdottir and Bakowska-Mathews are third and fourth in points, respectively, despite their limited starts.
While the Seminoles’ foreign athletes bring a ton of offensive firepower, these same players work equally hard in the classroom, with Brynjarsdottir, Campbell, Bakowska-Mathews and holding midfielder Schmid all earning ACC Academic Honor Roll recognition in past seasons. Bakowska-Mathews maintains the program’s high scholastic standards despite her difficult major in Physics.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” the soft-spoken Englander said of her intense major, only partly joking.
“We’re fortunate in the world of women’s soccer in that most folks out there do value a university education,” Krikorian says when speaking of his foreign students’ excellent academic record, “and the international players in particular recognize that being fluent in English can help them in the future. We have a very good team GPA, the chemistry in the team is a business-like attitude, mentality. They understand that they have responsibilities and that one of their responsibilities is to be the best student that they can. We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had a number of students that are Academic All-Americans and I think most of them have been international players. It’s a combination of maturity, academic discipline and drive and desire.”
Krikorian says after his initial contact in Sweden allowed him to gain a foothold in Europe, he was able to expand his network from there:
“It’s no different than recruiting domestically. If you get into some of these different clubs here in the US and the kids come and they have a good experience and they feel as though they’re developing then it’s a positive situation, then those coaches and those federations are feeling positive about the work that’s going on with their kids.”
He says his former players also help spread the word and can be ambassadors for the program:
“Twenty years ago it was much more challenging, now it’s much easier,” he said. “The reason it’s easier is we have a lot of kids that I’ve had the pleasure of working with and coaching that play with a lot of these kids on different national teams. Berglind was trying to decide if coming to the US was the right move, she could call her countryman, Dagny. When Emma Koivisto from Finland decided to come here as a freshman, she had the opportunity to speak with some others that have been here before from Finland…. Many of these kids, their national team coaches are happy with the progress they’re making. They look and they see that their kids are getting better. Women’s soccer in the U.S. is pretty good. These kids come in and they can play in highly competitive games and play with and against good players all the time.”
For many of the international players, especially the ones from non-English-speaking countries, the decision to move to another side of the world can be an unsettling prospect. Brynjarsdottir originally came from the small town of Hella, Iceland, with a population of around 700. She said she grew up playing against boys until the age of 13. By 16, she was playing with Iceland’s U-17 team and knew she would have to elevate her environment if she was going to continue to progress:
“I knew I had to move somewhere to be with a real women’s team, I couldn’t be with guys anymore,” she said. “I moved to the capital with my uncle and there… I played with the best women’s team at the time (Valur). We have two women’s leagues, like a first and second division, and I was champions with them in 2007, -8, -9 and -10 and I played in the Champions League with them.”
Brynjarsdottir also worked her way up Iceland’s youth national teams, eventually landing on spot on the full squad. At the time, she says, the women’s team was more popular than the men’s as they had better success on the international stage. Near the end of her senior season in high school, Brynjarsdottir says U.S. schools began contacting her to come play in America.
“I got a few emails from coaches, but I ignored them,” Brynjarsdottir said. “I wouldn’t even respond because I was not going to go to college. I had a really good season with Iceland in 2010 when I started playing with the national team. After that season, my team won the Icelandic league and the Icelandic Cup and I was chosen the best younger player in the league and I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m going to play pro’ and I didn’t even think about college.”
Unbeknownst to coach Krikorian, a bit of good fortune and the quirky hand of fate got him in the door when other coaches couldn’t get an audience with the single-minded Icelander. “I don’t know, something happened and I think Mark just contacted me. It was just perfect timing. It was about two weeks before graduation — I graduated early so I graduated in December. All the other schools that contacted me, I didn’t even look at the school, but this time… I think it was because, my high school where I went for two years back home before I moved, it was spelled ‘F-S-U’ so when I got the email, I was like ‘Why are they emailing me in English?’ so I had to open it and look over it.”
That bit of serendipity led Brynjarsdottir to finally consider higher education. She looked into the program and opened a line of communication with Krikorian in which they emailed and Skyped back and forth. Brynjarsdottir says she was ultimately influenced by the U.S. women’s national team and the fact that so many players from the No. 1 team in the world had come through the NCAA. Now Brynjarsdottir says she always tries to encourage other European players considering the U.S. collegiate system to not be afraid to take that big step overseas, with many players contacting her for advice, even ones she doesn’t know.
“Before I came here, I thought ‘I am so ready to go pro,’” she says of the preparedness college has given her and can give others. “But when I came here, I found out, I would not be ready at all, but now I would be ready.”
Brynjarsdottir said the Sunshine State wasn’t much of a tough sell for her, being a sun-worshipper, and that her family enjoyed the vacations when they came to see her. The language, however, was a problem.
“I hated English in high school and my English was terrible, especially my first semester.”
To help soften the impact, Krikorian said that upon arriving, his international players are paired with a team mentor, an American upperclassman teammate who can show them around as well as put them in a situation in which they will be using English through most of their day. The team also has a mentorship program which exposes them to other successful women in the local community. There is also a strong emphasis on giving back to that community, which the coach says runs throughout the entire athletic department and helps integrate the international players:
“It’s part of the Florida State culture,” Krikorian said. “I look at the entire school and the athletic department, it’s so proactive in making sure that we’re trying to help those that may need a little extra assistance. Whether it is breast cancer awareness or collecting slightly-used shoes and giving those to folks that may not have things or going into schools and reading and sharing time with kids and trying to be positive role models.”
“If you look at any one of them, you think ‘okay, it’s a small thing,’ but when you put them all together, it brings the group closer together.”
Although Krikorian’s legacy with overseas students has developed strong relationships in the international community – especially in the European community from which he primarily draws – the coach says the continent can often present its own difficulties for recruiting.
“Certainly in Europe it’s more challenging because they develop these players from a young age on and they don’t want them just leaving to go to college, for the most part, but, if they feel as though we can help make the player a better player and give them a great experience, a great education, then they’re more open to it oftentimes.”
Despite the diversity of styles and languages on the pitch, Krikorian says managing such a wide array of talent isn’t as difficult as one might think.
“In terms of managing the team and managing the players, I’ve dealt with so many international players over the last 25 years, that’s not an issue,” the 54-year-old coach said. “The bigger challenges, of course, are national team call-ups and respecting that and understanding that we’re going to go into games during our season that matter and we’re going to be missing some pretty talented kids. So from my point of view in managing the team, that’s a little bit challenging because you want to get all the pieces fitting together.”
Many FSU players have bright futures in the sport beyond the collegiate level. Krikorian has already sent 24 former Seminoles off to professional soccer careers either in the U.S. or overseas. Yamaguchi stayed in America as a pro with the Atlanta Beat in WPS before returning home to Japan in 2011.
Brynjarsdottir is undoubtedly one of the hottest prospects in the nation heading into 2015, and while the Icelandic play says playing in the U.S. could still be an option, she seems to be leaning back toward Europe.
“I want to try to play for the best women’s league in the world and for the best team,” she said. “I haven’t decided yet. When I played for my club… I played in the Champions League and I really liked that… My dream is to one day play in the Champions League again and play in the final… I don’t really know who’s going to contact me after I’m done, so I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”
Unfortunately for American fans, most international FSU players do head back across the Atlantic, whether to Germany, France or England, as they plan the next stage of their careers. Fellow Seminole seniors Campbell and Bakowska-Mathews also said they’re planning to return to Europe and hope to continue playing as professionals after graduation. Although the NWSL’s severe restrictions on foreign players limits the opportunities for many to become professionals in the U.S., Krikorian says he doesn’t have a problem with the new league’s policy as opposed to the WUSA’s world showcase.
“I think the most important thing for the league is sustainability. When I was in the WUSA and then when the WPS came, the business model didn’t work. It was clear that that wasn’t working. In the WUSA days, we had the best players in the world: We had the best Germans, we had the best Chinese players, we had the best Norwegian players, we had the best players from everywhere, but the league lasted three years, went bankrupt and it ended. So I think sustainability is the best thing right now in the hope that, through growth and through increased attendance and increased sponsorship, corporate involvement and so on, that maybe it can get back to encouraging these top notch kids throughout the world to come back and pay.
“There are some very good international players that are playing here now. Kim Little is an outstanding player, (Jess) Fishlock is an outstanding player, Kerstine Garefrekes was here and she’s a very good player, but there isn’t the same depth of talent and the most elite-level players here now as there were back in the day. Right now, in my mind, it’s about the U.S. and U.S. players and giving them a chance to develop because, before the WUSA came, there was a lost generation: A number of kids who, after college ended, weren’t quite ready for the national team. They played in the W-League for a few months and then probably go into the workforce and not be heard of. The timing of the WUSA for players like (Abby) Wambach and (Heather) Mitts and some of these others was perfect because, had the WUSA not come along, who knows what would’ve happened with players like that ‘cause they were not inside the pool of the national team and they may have been players that didn’t make it and were never heard of again. Just think about U.S. Soccer without Abby Wambach.”
A scary thought. But Krikorian’s mind is on beating Stanford in Friday’s College Cup semifinal – and finally winning that elusive NCAA title with another strong crop of international talent.
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