The men’s soccer team at UTRGV is in just its second season after almost a 20-year hiatus. Head Coach Paul Leese had a type of player in mind when charged with the task of building a program from the ground up.
“Starting a team from scratch, I wanted disciplined, intelligent, hard-working student-athletes,” Leese said.
He found seven of the type hailing from Finland, the Northern European country more than 9,000 miles away from Edinburg.
Senior defender Sami Tittanen, junior forward Olli Tynkkynen and senior midfielder Rico Laitinen are all from Lahti, Finland, and played on the same team before joining forces at UTRGV.
Rounding out the group of Finnish players on the squad are redshirts Teemu Vaarakallio, a junior from Helsinki; sophomore defender Markus Björs of Espoo; and freshmen Esa Aalto of Turku and Jaakko Hietikko of Tuusula. The group of seven makes up almost one-third of the 24-man roster.
Vaarakallio started playing soccer as a kid and decided to travel thousands of miles away to play the game he loves.
“As soon I started walking around, I started kicking the ball around with my father and godfathers,” Vaarakallio said. “I know whatever I have in Finland is always going to be there for me, I can always go back. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So, I really wanted to take the chance and see what it’s like.”
The Vaqueros and their Finnish connection started when Leese was the head coach of the Coker College Cobras in Hartsville, S.C. Niko Tirkkonen transferred to Coker College to play for Leese, who admired Tirkkonen’s discipline and how hard he worked in and out of the classroom as a student-athlete.
Tirkkonen went on to play professionally in Finland after graduating but remains good friends with Leese, recommending Finnish talent to the UTRGV coach he thinks would fit his style of play.
“They have great education systems and that carries over into soccer. It made it easy for them to come to an environment, like Division I sports, where you need to be disciplined, you need to go to class, you need to take care of your diet and your work,” Leese said. “Rico, Markus, Esa, Jaakko, Olli, that’s five that were all part of the youth national team for Finland, so that’s really helped us try and lay the foundation here.”
Finland is a country that sees only two to three months of summer weather. Even then, the temperature averages a cool 63 degrees Fahrenheit during the warmest part of the year.
Laitinen said Finland’s weather played a big factor in his decision to move to America.
“Obviously, hockey is the biggest thing in Finland because we have a really long winter there. There are some good soccer facilities but they did not have that much money. That was one of the big factors when all of us decided to come over here, because the facilities and the environment here,” Laitinen said. “One of the biggest things for me when I was thinking about coming here was playing on natural grass in this weather.”
For Hietikko, who leads the team with two goals and 15 shots, his start was different.
“I heard my friends Olli, Markus and Miko were coming to America to play soccer, so I decided I should give it a try,” he said. “I sent my tape to Coach Leese and he decided he wanted me.”
Hietikko sat out a year last year as a red shirt. He is now a team captain and offensive weapon.
Laitinen, a transfer student from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, said the process of dealing with a language barrier coming from his homeland was a challenge.
“At first it was challenging. It took a good two to three months to have good communication with people and understand them. It took almost a whole year to understand things with school. I put a lot of hours and time to make the most out of school,” Laitinen said. “I think the most common thing that the whole country has here, from North Carolina to down here in Edinburg, people are really open. The culture back home, people are not that open or like to have that kind of small talk. That was the biggest difference for me that I had to adapt to, but I think it’s gone quite well.”
The Finnish Vaqueros tie together a close-knit group of guys who are working to achieve the same goal, winning soccer matches. Vaarakallio, whose favorite thing about life in the Rio Grande Valley is food, said he can count on his teammates to be there for him.
“During our day-to-day activities, we’re great together. It doesn’t show that some of us are from Finland, some are from New Zealand, but we’re just one team,” Vaarakallio said. “It’s great to have people from similar backgrounds though, so we can offer support to each other. When we’re culture shocked, we can just look at each other and be like, ‘That’s crazy, right?’”