RJ DEMELLO - Monday, June 24, 2013
High up north in a country few go to and a town no one has ever heard of, there is something quite different going on.
Akureyri, Iceland sits nestled in a quiet fjord on the north side of the island and is home to only about 18,000 people, three of which just so happen to be American soccer players. Giuseppe Funicello, Chukwudi Chijindu, and Josh Wicks call this town, and the local club Thor, home.
To find out how all of this began, one has to look at Funicello, an Italian-American defender looking to live his dream of playing in Europe. His current stint at the club being his second, the man from Connecticut has carved a home out of the tough terrain that north Iceland.
After returning to Thor, a small club with limited resources, it seems that Joe, as many call him, has taken on an even bigger role. When the club came to him asking if he knew any players he was quick with a recommendation.
"They asked me if I knew any players to strengthen the team and I had to bring over some Americans," the defender told Yanks-Abroad in an interview with all three players. "I played with Josh (Wicks) in Finland so I brought him over, I told my coach about him they got in contact and brought him over."
Wicks' name should sound familiar as he spent time with the LA Galaxy and DC United of Major League Soccer. The 29 year old goalkeeper helped the club gain promotion last season and now looks to cement his spot in the starting lineup.
Seemingly with the success of his first suggestion, it wasn't long before the club again asked for another, this time a goal scorer.
As Funicello describes it, "I knew Chuk because he went to UConn and I'm from Connecticut. I asked our mutual friend if he knew a striker that would be interested in coming over and they brought Chuk over."
Chijindu spent time at Chivas USA as well as in the lower divisions of US Soccer after starring at the University of Connecticut. He is currently among the top scorers in the entire league after the early parts of this campaign. Funicello is quick to praise Chijindu, who immediately fit in well on the field, "When he came last year, it was the reason why we got promoted."
With Funicello playing his best general manager, suddenly three Americans find themselves playing together in a league that plays from May to September and in a stadium that seats less than a thousand people.
The trio helped Thor win promotion from the second division last year and finds the level of play to be of surprising quality for a small time league in such a small country.
"I would say it's equivalent to NASL/USL, it's anywhere between there," Chijindu describes. "I agree with Chuk it's a lot like NASL or USL but the style of play is so different, it's more direct," Funicello quickly adds.
Wicks tends to agree for the most part with his teammates, though he gives the league a little more credit. "The top half of the table is very strong, the bottom half of the table the teams are mixed," Said Wick. "If I had to compare it, the top three or four teams could play in the MLS."
In a country where the sport of handball is historically the main sport, soccer finds itself in a similar place the game tends to be in America, looking to consistently grow.
"I think the football here is definitely growing, I think the importance of the sport to people is growing," according to Chijindu. Funicello, being there the longest adds, "I was here in 2010 and it didn't get as much coverage. But now it's definitely grown more since then."
So far in 2013 Chijindu is fifth in the league in scoring, while the club sits roughly mid-table, an outcome they think would be fair to their team.
"I think (the season) is going well, we didn't have Chuk the first three games and that definitely showed. We are mid-table now and we are playing a lot better," Funicello explains.
In fact, with the American contingent's immediate success on the field, the biggest adjustment for these players is adapting to a whole new environment they have never encountered before. Icelandic is an extremely difficult language to learn adding that to a very small town with some unfamiliarly cold weather and it is like living in a whole new world.
"It's getting warmer here so that always helps," Chijindu says, though to put that in perspective the average high temperature in June is a hazy, hot, and humid-56 degrees.
While the weather is certainly an adjustment it seems language has been a large barrier, especially for Chijindu.
"They have a little review show they do but for me I just watch it for the film. I don't know Icelandic so I don't really understand anything they're saying," The former Husky says with a slight chuckle. "(The) Language is definitely difficult and hard to learn, I was fortunate to come when there was already two Americans so the transition was so much easier."
Funicello points out, "us being Americans we stick together, we're just used to each other's culture and it makes it easier."
While it is certainly a large adjustment for all, it is not to say that living in Iceland doesn't have its perks.
As Wicks describes, "It's a very beautiful country, the people are very peaceful and nice and really there's no complaints." Talking about his view on his drive home he explains, "the landscape is something out of a fairytale."
So with adjusting to life in a new country and now in the top division, up next is where to go from here. All three of the contingent believes that Thor has a chance to do quite well.
"I think we could finish in the top half of the table, I think we can contend with the top teams who seem to always run away with (the league)," describes Chijindu.
"We have the talent, we definitely do," Funicello adds. "I wouldn't count us out of trying to qualify for Europe."
Wicks echoes the first two's prediction with an adamant statement of his own. "I said it in preseason, I said it the beginning of the season, I think we can easily finish top four top five in the table."
Such a finish would certainly be an accomplishment for these three Americans and their tiny club, from the tiny town, in a country on the top of the world.