KENYA BROWN - Monday, December 29, 2014
The holiday season will certainly be a special one for defender Rhett Bernstein after he played a big part in Mjondalen's promotion to Norway's Tippeligaen for the 2015 season.
The native of San Diego, California, played a vital role in the team's run through the promotion/relegation playoff as they would take on SK Brann in the two-leg final in November.
While a team in the First Division would no doubt be considered an underdog in a game with so much on the line, Bernstein's performances along with the rest of the team leading up the final gave them a good chance to cause an upset.
After a number of seasons in the First Division with Mjondalen, Bernstein told Yanks Abroad that he had all the confidence that this team had what it took to earn promotion.
"I think it's been a roller coaster," he said. "Ever since I came to Norway and just had the opportunity to play I think in the Second Division everyone is aspiring to make it to the next level. I even said to the club when I first came I really think we can really go up and they kind of laughed it off because they thought they were such a small club."
"But we've been building every year, getting better, and every year we've actually improved, I think they've done this for seven or eight years they've done better and better each year. It's kind of cool."
Mjondalen's quest to reach the country's top division got off to a good start as they left the Brann Stadion with a 1-1 tie on Nov. 24 - a game in which Bernstein suffered a nasty head injury, but fought on to earn Man of the Match honors. They followed that up with an impressive 3-0 rout of the Bergen-based team at home three days later to seal their move up.
For the 27 year-old, the mission of earning promotion was not only a great achievement, but also knocking off at team that had been in the Tippeligaen since 1987 made it even sweeter.
"It was a special feeling beating one of the biggest teams in Norway and getting the opportunity to play at the highest level," he said.
Bernstein is one of many to know what life is like for aspiring soccer players who want to make it to the next level, but have to pay their dues in the lower divisions. While the Brown University graduate was not on the radar of any of the teams in Major League Soccer, he said he likes the competitive nature in Europe where players have the chance of working their way to the top compared with what is found in the U.S. system.
"It's very different, but I think it's so competitive and you just realize that there's so many good players that are kind of mixed in between. I mean I played reserve games sometimes in the third or fourth tier in Norway and you could see a couple of players there that are really talented."
"I wouldn't say it's the highest level, but you can see guys that are just fighting to get to the top. I just like the promotion/relegation aspect and especially in Europe. It's just so competitive and it's very different from the U.S."
"I'm not saying that college wasn't competitive or MLS or all the other leagues," he continued, "but I think just the added thing where you have just the level system you can jump to the next level."
"I feel if you go to the NASL or USL, it's difficult to get to MLS. You can win the NASL, but you're not necessarily going to MLS. So, I think for guys coming to Europe, that gives them the opportunity if you start in the Second Division or Third Division or whatever level you get the opportunity to prove yourself. And now that it has actually happened it's a really incredible feeling."
Now that Mjondalen are preparing for their return to the Tippeligaen - their first time in the top flight since the 1992 season - they will be looking to build a strong team to make sure that they stay up for beyond the 2015 season. One of the players they will be looking to hold onto is Bernstein whose contract expired at the end of the season.
Despite the possibility of getting a look by some teams in MLS, Bernstein seems intent on remaining with his current team as soon as they can agree to terms on a new contract.
"Definitely, I've fought my way in Europe at least in Norway. It's not necessarily Germany or England, but I think since I've come this far and now the opportunity is coming to play at the highest level here, I'd like to give it a shot," he said.
"And of course MLS is attractive and I think it's a very good league. It's grown over the years. Looking back on it now, five years ago I had to opportunity to go to MLS, but I think it was a huge learning process going to Europe and having to challenge yourself because there are moments where you think whether it's worth it, is it good enough. It's just been a total grind to get to this level. And you learn a lot, learn the system, the tactics, the mentality, it's just all part of the whole experience."
Bernstein hopes he can continue his career in Europe whether it be in Norway or elsewhere, but he has noticed how MLS has grown through the years. He is not the only one, as he said some players that he has talked have also taken notice and are considering it as an option in hopes of furthering their careers.
"It's grown a lot in the last few years. I would say there's a huge traction for players to go there, and these players at the highest level here are interested in it. So, I think it's a very attractive place to play. I would definitely consider playing there."
"I just think now that I've possibly been given the opportunity to play here at least at the top level I want to see how that's like. Who knows, one or two seasons go well or something happens and you can play in Champions League.
However, as he monitors the league and the U.S. system as whole, he feels that there are things it can learn from Europe in order to help players' development.
"I think the U.S. has come a long way, and I'm proud the systems getting better, but there's still a very big flaw in the system where the competitive nature throughout all the leagues and it's kind of like its own network here," he said. "Like you play in Fifth, Sixth Division I mean you can build your way up to the top division. I wish that was implemented in the U.S. somehow. You would really see a higher level because there are some really good players that sitting in the USL and NASL and other leagues that don't get the opportunity necessarily."
While Bernstein ponders over what will come up next in his professional soccer career, the economics grad is also considering whether he has a future in the sport on the other side. However, at this moment he is keen on getting as much as he can out his playing career before he gives his full attention to what he will do afterward.
"You think a lot about this regularly and I think right now it's difficult to say. But of course, I think it would be something to work with definitely after football or maybe even during. I have time to try and establish something on the side. It's hard to say right now. I guess I'm in a mixed world," he said.
"Before when I was playing in the Second Division I was thinking maybe I need to do something else. But now this opportunity has come up I think I need to focus even more and harder just on football now."