John Miller is taking his soccer game to a new level, playing in Finland while doing an internship under his former North Shore United soccer coach Stefano Franciosa. The former Masconomet star, who will be a freshman at Bucknell in the fall, is living a dream while honing his techniques.
Miller is used to strong competition, having played for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, but he had to sharpen his skills to play for Ekenas IF in the Finnish Winter Classic last month. After North Shore United founder Franciosa accepted the position of coach of the premier men's team and director of the youth program in Roseborg (near Helsinki) , he wanted to give some of his NSU players a chance to experience life in Finland. Miller, who is the first to take advantage of this terrific opportunity, decided it was too good to pass up.
"John came a week and a half after I arrived, trained with the team and played in the Cup competition with the first team," said Franciosa. "We had a few injuries, and he cleared it with USA Soccer. We needed him, and he really helped us win. John is doing quite well and getting much better playing at that level.
"He played defense for me. We had let go a Brazilian center back and had another player injured so we needed help there. Our regular season starts in April and goes through September. In the Finnish Cup you keep playing until you lose, and we advanced to Level 3 which is two levels higher than ours. It's very good competition; better than any MLS team."
Miller does office work, films games, scouts, and just about anything else that needs to be done. The big bonus is getting to practice and play with the team. In Europe the game is wildly popular and fast paced.
"Before making my decision whether to come to Finland I had to weigh the pros versus the cons to see if the trip would be worth it. Obviously, some of the immediate cons were not being home with my family or friends, but realistically the positives clearly outweighed the negatives. I knew right away the trip would be a huge growing experience for me and would act as great preparation for going off to college. I have always had my parents nearby to guide me with everything."
Miller is now on his own making the decisions, but he has always wanted to live in Europe. Previously, he thought about Spain, Germany or England, but is really enjoying his experience in Finland. Although he knew it was going to be cold, experiencing how bone chilling the weather is during the long winter has been an eye opener.
"The experience has been nothing short of spectacular," he said. "Getting to meet new friends, trying all sorts of different amazing food and desserts, and rolling in the snow right before jumping in the sauna are just a few things that have made my trip a blast. Living with Stefano in a quaint two-room apartment has been great as well."
Miller sleeps in the kitchen, but he said it is so quiet there at night he feels like he's in a bedroom. He has met lots of new people from a different culture, and is learning Swedish but happy that everybody in Roseborg speaks English. He has a regular schedule, starting the day with a light breakfast and then walking to the Sport 10 gym in the downtown area. Miller compared it to a YMCA gym except for the local custom of working out barefoot.
He has developed a taste for pyltipanna which is a combination of chopped potatoes, bacon, onions, and sausage. He also has a craving for a local dessert called wienermunk. In addition to working with Franciosa, he is able to train three times a week with the first team and three times with the Academy team which is comprised mainly 17- to 19-year-olds hoping to get a spot on the first team. All the time practicing and training has helped improve his skills and footwork.
"I try to find time to read a book or write a blog post about my experiences," he said. "I've always played soccer with people my own age and felt it would be a difficult transition jumping into the college game. However, here in Finland I have been lucky enough to play with people 16 to 30 years of age. The game is not only more physical, but also much more demanding mentally."
Miller said he had always able to get away with looking up and figuring out where he wanted to pass the ball after it was on his foot. That's something he no longer has the luxury of doing.
"Here if you do not find a pass three seconds before you get the ball, you cannot keep up with the pace of the game," he said. "By playing every day my ability to use both feet in any circumstance has significantly improved, and this is something I know I need to continue to work at."
The highlight of his trip was participating in a Finnish Cup game, starting and playing all 90 minutes at center back. It was against the team favored to win it all in the division, NUPS. They that had signed a couple of new high quality players for the season, and it was a big test not only for Miller but the whole team.
"As expected the game was very fast paced, and very physical," he said. "We struck first on a rebound goal in the first half, but NUPS tied it up on a great cross to the back post and an unmarked player there to put it away with 15 minutes left. In preliminary stages of the Finnish Cup there is no overtime; they go right to penalty shots."
"Ekenas won, 4-3 and after the game was finished I felt extremely happy with the way I played and felt extremely accomplished. I had just played my first legitimate game in Finland, and it truly was a great feeling. My time here so far has been a dream come true."
The day of the last Finnish Cup it was only 26 degrees Celsius or 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and according to league rules in that weather they must play indoors on a full size soccer field at a state of the art facility located outside Helsinki. Some days are even too cold for the rugged Fins to brave.
Miller will stay in Finland until this summer, soaking up the atmosphere and high-powered soccer before returning home to get ready for college.