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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Friday, January 25, 2013

Wheeler brings tales of Finland's second division to Union

Among the new faces on the Union this season is striker Aaron Wheeler, and in addition to a wealth of experience in the lower divisions of American soccer, the 24-year-old brings a unique set of soccer travels to Philly.

Wheeler spent last season with FC KooTeePee in the Finnish second division. He scored two goals in 17 league appearances for a team that finished seventh in the Ykkonen but left Scandinavia with a bagful of unique experiences.

“It was awesome. I’ve never lived that far away,” Wheeler said of living in the town of Kotka, where the club is based. “… There’s some things you take for granted in the U.S. Like over there, they only had bikes to get around places. It’s cold, still snowing in May.”

Perhaps the biggest thing to overcome was a language barrier, one that comes with a cultural aspect to it.
“It’s a couple of adjustments as far as the language,” Wheeler said. “They’re a very shy culture. They know how to speak English, but they don’t prefer to. It’s a little tough like pulling teeth get them to speak to you, but eventually they open up.”

Wheeler’s experience also included some Finnish Cup drama, including scoring both goals, both penalties and one in the 103rd minute, to upset FC Inter Turku, 2-1, in the seventh round. (Inter went on to finish second in Veikkausliiga, Finland’s premier league.) Wheeler’s KooTeePee side was eliminated in the quarterfinals, losing to eventual Veikkausliiga champion HJK.

It showed him both ends of the spectrum, from the smaller venues in the Arctic Circle – a main reason why the season is so short and spans from May to September, different from most European leagues – to the bigger stadiums like HJK’s that can draw more than 10,000 spectators on a regular basis.

Scandinavia has been a popular destination for American players. Promising young Americans like Mix Diskerud (Norway’s Rosenborg), Josh Gatt (Norway’s Molde) and Alejandro Bedoya (Sweden’s Helsingborg) all ply their trades there. Wheeler cites the ease of integration to the leagues, more so on the bureaucratic side than on the pitch, for making accessible the transition to the leagues.

With the days of harrowing Arctic bus trips – on vehicles not exactly designed for someone like the 6-4 Wheeler – behind him, the striker is glad to be back in the States and sees the Union as a great fit.

“I’ve heard some things about (a lack of height last year), but I’m just happy to come in and have an opportunity to help them out in whatever way possible,” Wheeler said. “If they need me for set pieces, fine. If they just need a great practice player, I’m here to do that too. Whatever way I can contribute, I’m happy.”

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