An intriguing pipeline has formed, one that runs from the Swedish city of Malmo across the Atlantic Ocean and has branched off in Orlando, New York and Seattle.
Major League Soccer has long been a destination for Scandinavian players, most notably Freddie Ljungberg and Ola Kamara. But over the last two seasons, four players — three this preseason — have made the jump from Malmo FF to play in Major League Soccer.
It started with Yoshi Yotun’s move to Orlando City SC last year, followed by three additions this preseason with Anton Tinnerholm and Jo Inge Berget going to New York City FC and Magnus Wolff Eikrem joining Seattle Sounders FC.
Why the recent trend? It appears Sweden’s most successful club has been sellers of late and MLS teams are certainly willing to buy, especially young players who have the experience of winning championships and playing in the UEFA Champions League.
“I’m sure more players will come,” Yotun said. “Malmo is a team that has been selling a lot of players lately, the past two years I was with them. They sold about 10-15 players. I’m sure as MLS keeps growing they’re going to keep noticing it and looking into those players from Malmo.”
Yotun, the Peruvian international, is the trendsetter. After spending his early career in his native Peru, Yotun was signed by Malmo in January, 2015 before making the move to MLS last August.
“It was a great time with Malmo,” Yotun said. “It was my first time experiencing European football. I played in two Champions Leagues, I was there for two-and-a-half years and my teammates treated me very well. They helped me develop professionally.”
Sitting in the next stall in Malmo’s locker room was Berget, the bearded Norwegian attacker who also arrived in January, 2015 after loan spells with Cardiff City and Celtic. The two struck up a friendship so when Yotun went to MLS, Berget was naturally curious.
“He was very satisfied and told me it was a good move for him. Of course, it was a part of my decision,” Berget said. “If he had said something different I might have gone another way. He was very satisfied with the league and the team and how things are done over here. He was very positive.”
Berget still had more homework to do and spoke to former NYCFC midfielder Mix Diskerud and Kamara about their experiences in the league.
Meanwhile, Yotun pitched a reunion in Orlando.
“He asked me about the league and I told him it’s a league that’s growing a lot, that has a lot of talent, a lot of quality,” Yotun said. “I even wanted to bring him to Orlando, but he ended up going to New York City.”
Berget became the second Malmo player that NYCFC signed during a busy offseason after Tinnerholm, the Swedish fullback, made the move in December. Tinnerholm was aware of MLS during his three years at Malmo and his time at Atvidabergs FF before that.
But a recent shift in the league’s demographic, with an influx of younger players coming in, made MLS a more viable option for Tinnerholm, who lauded the professionalism of NYCFC’s setup to Berget, who signed a month later. The fullback started and went the full 90 in NYCFC's 2-0 win in their season opener while Berget was nursing an injury.
“The talking in the locker room is different now compared to a couple of years ago when you speak about MLS,” he said. “It’s way more attractive than it was a couple of years ago.”
Some 2,800 miles away in the Pacific Northwest, Eikrem practically echoes his former teammate’s views of MLS and why now is the right time for him to make the move.
“It’s a league that’s on the way up,” he said at the team’s annual media day last Wednesday. “Obviously, Seattle is one of the biggest teams, if not the biggest. It’s going to be a great opportunity to see how they do it over here. So many good players come into this league and I can’t wait to start playing and showing what I can do."
Eikrem showed that in a big way on his debut 24 hours later, coming off the bench to spark the Sounders to a 4-0 win over Santa Tecla in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16. He followed it up with another 45-minute cameo in Seattle's season-opening loss on Sunday.
It just might be the start of a beautiful relationship in the Emerald City.
Relationships with players, especially teammates, help facilitate moves, but there is also relationships between teams and agents. Seattle has been a preferred destination for several Scandinavian players, including Ljungberg, Gustav Svensson and Erik Friberg, who were each able to continue their national team careers while plying their trade in MLS.
Malmo’s annual preseason trip to Florida, where the club takes on MLS teams, has also been beneficial to scouting those players and fostering relationships, according to Seattle Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson.
“I think the players have been able to come over and adapt quickly,” Henderson said. “The language isn’t a problem, the physicality of the league isn’t a problem. I think Malmo, in particular, has top players from that region.”
Ari Liljenwall contributed to this report.