Postcard from Europe: Cunningham's Norway foray
AMSTERDAM — Molde FK back line apprentice Sean Cunningham (Above, right - Photo courtesy of Åge André Breivik/NRK) was not originally dead-set on being one of those Americans to quickly hop the pond to European soccer, but the chance to play in a top flight for Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær was too good to pass up.
The Michigan native gained attention overseas on a tour of central Europe with the SuperElite All-American Showcase squad. An impressive Mainz 05 trial looked to have him set to join up there, but the club backed off.
On January 24 – Cunningham's 18th birthday – he answered Solskjær's call by inking a three-year contract with Molde.
"This was a huge opportunity," Cunningham told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Norway. "After Mainz fell through, I had other interest. When I heard that Ole Gunnar Solskjær was going to be the manager here, that sold it to me.
"I was upset that the Mainz deal didn't work out, but it turns out that happened for a reason."
Just removed from the life of any normal high school athlete, the teenager has worked his way into Solskjær’s first team. Though he’s yet to make his Tippelgaen debut, the defender has made three consecutive NM Cupen starts to help Molde charge into the domestic cup’s sweet 16.
Slowly but surely, Cunningham is finding his way in his new home with his new team. With Solskjær the one barking orders and giving instruction, Cunningham says it is very easy to fall in line.
"Everything he says is remembered because he's been there for all those moments and he's gone through it," the teenager explains of his boss, a treble-winning forward with the Red Devils in 1999. "You don't have to wonder if he’s right or not."
Not only does Solskjær have the young American's fixed attention, he offers a slew of similarities that help make Cunningham's transition to Molde FK life easier.
This is the former Norway star's rookie season as a first team boss, with his only experience a title-winning season with the Manchester United reserves last year. Solskjær also started his top flight playing career at Molde, so the coach and Cunningham understand the same wavelengths.
Perhaps most helpfully, Solskjær is an ace with English. In fact, unlike most foreign youngsters that head to Europe looking to get in the game, Cunningham is rarely forced to look around wondering what's happening because he doesn't speak the new language yet.
"A couple of the assistant coaches are English, so most of the training sessions are actually in English," he informed. "It's really helpful. You don't have to ask everybody what's being said."
Essentially, the defender has skipped college for a campus feel with buzz at Molde, a club still in search of its first Norwegian crown in their centennial season.
After an opening day stumble from the blocks, the Blue-Whites have revved up the attack to climb to fifth place through 10 games. Molde have scored at least twice in seven of nine, ringing up five wins. On Thursday, they travel to second place Strømsgodset with an outside shot at first place through victory.
Like Cunningham said, nobody in the clubhouse is wondering whether the coach is right.
"For it being his first year, I think everything has gone pretty well so far," graded the pupil. "Hopefully, we can win [on Thursday] and get closer to the top. Things are starting to fall into place."
Whether they are or aren't at a given time, Cunningham is lucky enough to have old youth club teammate Josh Gatt around. Though both are Tippeligaen freshman, Gatt broke through as a pro with a successful short spell at Austrian second flight side Altach.
"[Gatt] was usually one year ahead of me, but his last year at [Michigan club team Derby County] Wolves, I was playing with the older team,” noted Cunningham. "He's gone through the same ups and downs I do. It makes things seem much more easy to adapt to."
For an 18-year old from the other side of the globe, adaptation aides are obviously a big plus. There's a lot to digest and learn on and off the field.
Though listed as a left back, Cunningham has been splitting time in the middle at his natural position.
"I didn't start playing left back until a few months before I came to Molde," he said. "The center is actually more comfortable for me, but I like them both."
Without even directly answering, he makes it perfectly clear that getting up the field is a big bonus at his newer station of left back.
"There's things that make me happy about both positions," laughed Cunningham.
Away from the game, he’s been managing daily life just fine. Cunningham reports there wasn't as much culture shock as he expected and the routine of getting to work just took over.
"It has its up and downs, but I find it really fun," he said of finding his way in a new land. "I live in an apartment really close to the downtown strip, so you can walk anywhere. It's not so different than the States, really."
The real difference is in the game. As noted, Cunningham is suddenly on a first division club led by a famous manager in an early title chase. Every so often, he lets the whole idea hit him at once.
"I have thought about that," said Cunningham. "It doesn't hit you right away, as much as I expected it would. Things happen so fast and you just kinda get on and prepare."