Alumni Spotlight: Former Cascades soccer stars finding success in Sweden

Cascades alum Sasa Plavsic has been playing professionally in Sweden since 2013.

For a growing number of University of the Fraser Valley soccer alumni, Sweden is the land of opportunity.

Pro soccer opportunity, specifically.

There are currently five former Cascades playing soccer professionally in the Scandinavian nation:

Sasa Plavsic was the trailblazer, arriving in Sweden in August 2013. The all-time leading scorer for the Cascades men’s soccer program with 20 goals in Canada West play over three seasons (2010-2012), he found success in short order, helping IK Frej, a small Swedish club based in a suburb of Stockholm, gain promotion to the Superettan (the second-highest tier of Swedish men’s soccer) for the first time in its 46-year history in 2014. After his contract with IK Frej ran out, he joined Syrianska Kerburan IF (fourth tier), scoring 14 goals in 24 games. Plavsic has also found professional success off the pitch – the Coquitlam, B.C. product was hired as a PE teacher at an international English school, and currently plays Syrianska Eskilstuna (fifth tier).

Tristan Corneil was the first Cascades women’s soccer alum to establish herself in Sweden – she signed with Rynninge IK (second tier) in the spring of 2017. A major knee injury cut her season short, though, and she returned to Canada for ACL surgery. A two-time Canada West all-star with the Cascades, Corneil spent the early portion of this summer training with Calgary Foothills WFC of United Women’s Soccer, and eventually landed a contract from another Swedish squad, Telge United (third tier). Nine months post-surgery, the defender from Cloverdale, B.C. was able to return to the pitch and play her first full game.

Karlee Pedersen arrived in Sweden this spring, and she’s found early success. After beginning her pro career with Korsnas IF, a club in Sweden’s third tier, she landed a contract from Assi IF in the Elitettan (Tier 2) at midseason. Pedersen, a left back from Abbotsford, B.C., is building off a stellar 2017 campaign with the Cascades which saw her earn Canada West second-team all-star honours.

Connor MacMillan made his debut is Sweden this season with Skoftebyn IF, a club in the fourth tier. The midfielder from Chilliwack, B.C. is among the most productive players in Cascades men’s soccer history, ranking seventh all-time in goals (10) and tied for fourth in assists (6), and he represented Canada at the 2017 Summer Universiade in Chinese Taipei.

Kayla Klim is the third Cascade to make her Swedish debut this season – she’s teammates with Corneil at Telge United in the third tier. The goalkeeper from Burnaby, B.C. is second on the Cascades’ all-time list for wins (23) and tied for first in shutouts (17).

Tristan Corneil in action last season with Rynninge IK.

We caught up with the Cascades’ three newest soccer pros – Pedersen, MacMillan and Klim – via email for a Q&A on their time in Sweden.

How did this pro soccer opportunity come about for you?

Karlee Pedersen: “This whole opportunity came through meeting an agent who lives in Stockholm through a mutual friend, a.k.a. Tristan! I got in contact with him, and he got me in contact with the team in the third tier. I came over and was playing with them for half the season. Near the end of that season, I got news that the team in Kalix had lost their left back, so I messaged my agent and asked him about it – whether they were looking for someone, and if we should start talking with them. Within three weeks, I had watched the team play, met their sporting director, and they offered me a contract. It’s been really exciting.”

Connor MacMillan: “A close friend of mine mentioned that I should try playing professionally in Sweden since it’s not only a beautiful country to live in, but it also has such a large number of clubs I could possibly sign with. My friend knew a guy who put me in contact with someone from Sweden who helps bring players (mainly Canadians) to Sweden. Thanks to them, I was able to attend trials here in February with a couple clubs. Fortunately, everything worked out nicely with Skoftebyn IF in terms of the living situation, the city and the club in general. Plus the coaching staff and team seemed like a group of people I’d like to get to know more on the field.”

Kayla Klim: “As far as how I got here, it’s the same as Karlee and Connor, and that’s (agent) Oscar Melander. He helped Tristan come over last year, and has helped all of us and a few other Canadians find our way over here.”

How does it feel to be a pro soccer player? What’s the experience been like, and how has the transition been?

KP: “It’s really cool, actually. Growing up, the first dream for me was to play in university, and about halfway through university, the next goal was to play pro. I had some people doubt if I would be able to do that: ‘Are you sure? You’ll be older at that point, you’re going to be past your peak.’ I was like, no, no, no. This is going to be a thing that I’m going to make happen. It’s been basically everything I want it to be – soccer all the time – and it’s been an easier transition than I thought it would be. The level of play has definitely jumped up since I joined the new team – more of a professional atmosphere, a higher level of play, faster pace, more technically strong. It’s been really great to be a part of, and it pushes me to be better. I’m really excited to keep playing with this team, and see how far I can push my own skills and take my game to the next level.

“One of the coolest things is (when people ask) ‘What do you do for work,’ being able to say, ‘I play football.’ I get to the field every day, and it’s, ‘OK, time to go to work.’ This is what you’re doing, this is what you’ve been training for, this is no longer a hobby or an interest. This is your life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

CM: “It feels great to be living in Europe, focusing on soccer and taking in all the other cultural experiences that go along with living halfway around the world. I thought the transition would have been tougher than it was. Of course I miss my family and friends since I don’t ever get to see them, but I have enjoyed the whole experience more than anything so far. Also, it gives me the chance to learn some Swedish. The level of play is good of course, but what I look forward to most are the Swedish Cup matches against top clubs in this country. We have made it quite far in Cup play, so it will be good to compete against these clubs and see how we compare as a team and also how I compare on a personal level.”

KK: “It is really awesome to be playing the sport I love in a good intensity and good environment. The big thing for me coming to Sweden was that I’d get to play a longer season. Tristan just finished playing in Calgary, which is at the highest level that we have in Canada for women’s soccer, and it was a two-and-a-half, three-month season. Whereas this is closer to seven months, so I feel more like a professional athlete here, being able to do it for more months out of the year.”

Connor MacMillan has had a strong start to his pro career with Skoftebyn IF.

What’s it like living in Sweden, and what’s your favourite thing about the country?

KP: “I love Sweden! I went from being just a couple hours out of Stockholm (with Korsnas IF), and now I’m at the very north of Sweden (with Assi IF). It’s beautiful. I’ve loved every city I’ve been to since I’ve been here. The culture has been great. One of my favourite things is, it’s just so pretty. There’s water everywhere. I’m up in the north right now where the sun doesn’t really set, so you have these beautiful late-night bright skies. Then of course, you go down to the big cities, and you have the old buildings – your castles and your churches. But as far as cultural transitioning, it hasn’t been that difficult. It’s been pretty easy to slide in. And there’s quite a few international players as well, so we’re going through it together. There’s a lot of stuff that’s similar to home. There’s that language barrier at first, but most people speak English, so that’s great. I’ve learned a little bit of Swedish, but not enough to hold a full conversation.”

CM: “Living in Sweden has been a life-changing experience so far. The people are really nice and welcoming, and every city is unique and culturally quite different from Canada. At the same time, there are a lot of similarities between Canada and Sweden which has also made things easier when moving here. Other than the soccer side of things, my favourite part about Sweden so far has been the people I’ve gotten to know and the amazing places I get to see so often. The ocean is quite close to where I am, there are awesome lakes and just walking around some of the cities here is a good time.”

KK: “It’s been really awesome. Living near Stockholm has been great. The people here are really nice, and everyone’s English is amazing, which I did not expect. Then again, that does make it hard for me to learn Swedish! The best thing about Sweden is fika. You know how at home you take a coffee break? You drink some coffee, you talk to your co-workers. Here, it’s more of a cultural thing. You eat your pastry, have a coffee, and take more of a break to really talk to people and de-stress before you go back to work. Fika can happen more than once in a day; at my work, it happens twice a day. We have fika around 10:00 or 10:30 and then again around 3:00. That’s really awesome. I try not to eat too many sweets, but they have some really good pastries here!”

Looking to the future, what are your goals and dreams in pro soccer?

KP: “I’m really excited to finish out the rest of the season, and next season I plan to come back to Europe – hopefully to Sweden. I would love to move up to the Damallsvenskan division (first tier), but there are so many things to consider in that. Even playing at this level has been really great . . . I’m open to that. It’s just about finding a place to play at a high level where soccer is the main focus. One more year, for sure, and we’ll take it from there. I don’t have any plans to stop playing anytime soon.”

CM: “As for my goals and dreams in soccer, I want to either move up in Sweden or sign with a Canadian club that will compete in the new Canadian Premier League (CPL) in 2019/2020. These are both goals that I know I should reach sooner than later. I personally do not see myself slowing down in this sport, I constantly want to become better and play to the highest level so I can make a living for years doing what I love.”

KK: “I’m looking to move up in the professional environment here in Sweden. I have trained with teams in both the Damallsvenskan and Elitettan, and I’m exploring my experiences to move up the professional chain. I’m not sure how many years I’ll play here for, but I’ve got my sights on playing in a higher division next season.”

Former Cascades goalkeeper Kayla Klim has found success at Telge United.

To what extent did your time with the Cascades prepare you for this opportunity?

KP: “One of the biggest things that prepared me for coming over here was just the professionalism that we had at UFV. That’s translated very well over here. It was the dedication not only to making ourselves better, but to our team, and really investing in soccer and the team throughout the whole year. That’s helped get me to this point. You can’t just give up everything at home, quit your job, and come over to play soccer in Europe if you’re half into it. You have to really be committed. You have to be willing to sacrifice your time, your friendships, work opportunities. I think UFV really ingrained that – that things will come if you push really hard for them, and that soccer is a commitment that you’re making to your team. Even the level of play (in Canada West) was really great. It was definitely a stepping stone, and not far removed from what we’re doing here. (UFV coaches) pushed us to be better, faster, stronger constantly – never wanting us to settle or be OK with where we’re at. That’s really transitioned my mindset into this sort of opportunity and environment. I learned a lot about who I am as an athlete – what my strengths are, and also that I’m capable of so much more than I thought I was. Having great coaches during my time at UFV allowed me to realize that.”

CM: “My time with the Cascades had a big impact on me as a player as it fully prepared me for being in a professional environment for not three to four months a year, but for eight to nine months a year. During the season, the amount of training and games was quite intense and pretty much the same as it is playing in a professional environment. Especially with the amount of travel for many games throughout the season. I remember always wishing the university seasons were longer because I love training and playing games five to six days a week. So after five years with the Cascades, I’ve just wanted to keep playing as much as possible, and doing that in Sweden is something I never imagined myself doing even a couple years ago. I’m glad that I’m here now and taking it all in.”

KK: “It is really awesome to be playing the sport I love in a good intensity and good environment. It’s similar to playing at UFV – it’s a similar training schedule, and we only have one game a weekend, so that’s a little different. The training environment in Div. I has some similarities to U SPORTS. There’s quite a big gap between the best teams and the teams that are not so great. A lot of teams here, though, play a more direct style of play, whereas a lot of teams in U SPORTS played more of a possession game. It was interesting to see how many teams here play direct, and adjusting to that a little bit.”

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