Postcard from Europe: Wicks on walkabout in Finland
AMSTERDAM — In a way, IFK Mariehamn netminder Josh Wicks left MLS so that he could return the right way.
A pair of heavily publicized discipline lapses late in the 2009 season greased skids for the 27-year-old's D.C. United exit the following April.
"I know I had a couple situations there that didn't look good on my career," Wicks told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Finland on Tuesday. "I have a lot to prove to myself and to others."
He's off to a good start with that at Mariehamn. Signed before the 2011 Veikkausliiga season, Wicks debuted in January and quickly won the No. 1 shirt. He's the backstop of an improving team, third in Finland's top flight with 140 saves in 22 games and third among goalkeepers with at least 14 starts in save percentage.
This may not immediately seem overly impressive, being that Finland's honor division is currently ranked 30th in the UEFA co-efficients. But one must also consider that the Finns play soccer like they play hockey: Get it and go.
"Even if a team's winning, they go straight to goal, as fast as possible," Wicks said. "Maybe a couple teams will boot it around a little before they attack. It keeps me tuned in; you know you've got to stay focused. In no time at all, they can be on you."
Of course, to get at his goal, opponents must visit the hamlet of Mariehamn at the southwest tip of the country. It's on an island owned by Finland where 90 percent of the 11,000 residents speak Swedish.
While Wicks was born in Germany and lived there until he was four, he grew up near Los Angeles. Needless to say for a keeper, his greatest adjustments have come off the field.
"My job is the same everywhere: Keep it out of the net," he said. "I always liked different, and to experience different things. And it's completely different from where I grew up. Everything closes early. There's no beach burritos. There's not much of anything. I'm still adapting to it."
The scenery has changed and his diet with it, but Wicks is enjoying himself.
"The fish is actually really good," he said. "I even tried reindeer once."
Fortunately, as the Finnish language is among the toughest in the world to learn, Scandinavia's proven propensity for helping American adventurers settle is not confined to Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
"I've been blessed because everyone here learns English from second or third grade," said Wicks. "I've learned a few things in Finnish, but for the most part, everyone speaks English to me off the field. They're quite understanding if you can't speak Finnish."
It makes it easier when the local boys are on the rise. After a 12th-place finish one point above the relegation mire last season, IFK Mariehamn are in eighth place with six games to play.
They lost their second straight at KuPS on Wednesday, but Wicks and Mariehamn had booked seven points from the three prior matches and are nearly safe 13 points above the trap door.
"Right now, the attitude in the clubhouse is pretty good," he said. "The guys' spirits are up. We're playing good, training good. I wish it would have happened a little earlier, but better late than never."
That last phrase suits Wicks, who has gone from deposed bad boy to drawing some transfer interest in Sweden with his play. Next week, he'll make a brief inspection visit to Allsvenskan side Örebro SK, who will need a new goaltender this winter.
"I'll train with them a few days and they can get a look at me," he said. "It's possible I could be moving elsewhere after the season. I've heard a few other rumors, too."
In the end, all of these trials and tribulations all fit into his plan for that MLS return. He wants to show he's no longer the guy that got into a shoving match with teammate Marc Burch during an Aug. 2009 league game or the one that stomped Fredy Montero in US Open Cup play five days later.
The latter incident, in particular, left Wicks feeling the need to atone for much more than a red card or the four-game USOC suspension that came with it. In effect, it sent him on a walkabout.
"I'd like to stick around Europe a little longer and see how far, how high, I can climb," Wicks said. "When I've established myself as a professional, I want to come back to MLS."