When Matt Poland got the call in February of 2015 to fly to Finland and begin his professional soccer career, he did some quick research.
The 2010 Rochester Mayo graduate quickly had two big discoveries: Finland loves its saunas, with one per every two people. Also striking was Finland’s arrangement on speeding tickets. They’re based on income — the higher your salary, the heftier the fine.
Good things to know. So too was discovering that English is widely spoken in Finland, Finnish winters are longer but less severe than Minnesota’s, and Finns drink more milk and coffee than anyone in the world.
They also love their soccer, which immediately put Poland at ease. It’s why he’d shown up, his plane landing in Helsinki on Feb. 18, 2015. That, and the adventure of it all.
Poland wasted no time in saying yes to the opportunity his agent had presented, to join the professional soccer club Sporting Kristina, based in Kristinestad, on the shores of the Bothnian Sea.
"I got a call from my agent on a Tuesday night saying there was a team in Finland looking for a center-back defender (Poland’s best and most familiar position)," he said. "They were wondering if I could be there by Saturday."
After having trained in Chicago since early that summer, seeking a shot at professional soccer, there was no way Poland was going to turn this down.
"I got in on that Friday night, having flown into Helsinki," Poland said. "Then I got on a train that took me through the woods. It was quite an experience going to a country where I barely knew it on the map. The next thing I knew, I’d arrived at a train station, there to meet someone named Tony, the team’s assistant coach."
Poland had been striving for this day practically since he was 3, when he first fell in love with the game.
But what made pro soccer seem even more his destiny was what happened at the tail end of his sophomore season at Mayo. That’s when his older brother Eric Poland came through with a breathtaking move.
Mayo had just won the Section 1AA soccer championship and qualified for the state tournament. But it had one too many players on its roster, meaning someone on the team wasn’t going to be able to dress for the state tournament. Matt had looked like the odd one out, as the team’s youngest player.
Then Eric stepped in.
"My brother gave up his roster spot to me," Matt said. "We didn’t talk about it for years. But he later told me that he knew my goal was to eventually play professional soccer. He wanted to give me the best opportunity to succeed."
What a move.
"That has been the driving motivation in my soccer career," Matt said. "I’ve never wanted to waste that chance he gave me."
PLAYING CAREER CUT SHORT
Matt didn’t. After twice being named all-Big Nine Conference at Mayo, he went on to star at NAIA school Taylor University in Upland, Ind.
From there, it was on to Bridges To The Pros in Chicago, a training program intended to bridge the gap between college soccer and the pros, and where a bunch of MLS players go just before their pro seasons start.
Poland bridged the gap, all right, ultimately getting the call to join Sporting Kristina. After one year there, he moved up a level to join a Swedish team for two years (Club Savsjo FF) before landing back with Sporting Kristina in 2018.
Poland was playing his best soccer ever that summer of 2018. But then, just like that, everything came to a crashing and crushing halt.
Just 15 minutes into a game, Poland suffered a wicked knee injury after a hard cut. An MRI revealed hairline fractures on his knee cap and that he’d torn both his ACL and miniscus.
"It sounded like a branch cracking when it happened," Poland said. "I knew it was bad right away. For the first time in my career, I subbed myself out of a game."
Poland flew back to the United States, spending the next number of months rehabbing, with the intention of resuming his career. But the resumption never happened. The knee never did completely recover.
Instead, though, Poland had another door open for him, one that has kept his soccer flame lit and likely changed his life forever.
A NEW PATH
It was Sporting Kristina. The Finnish franchise was looking for a head coach. In his two seasons with them, Poland had impressed the heck out of them. They wanted him back.
"It was January of 2019," Poland said. "Sporting Kristina offered me their head coaching job."
Poland said yes.
So much of the satisfaction he’d gotten from playing, he quickly discovered, was now available from the sidelines. And this experience had a richness all its own.
Poland’s team begin his inaugural season 0-3.
Soon, though, that losing became a memory. Sporting Kristina went on an immediate 10-game winning streak.
Poland had won his team over.
"The biggest thing was the players began to buy into the system," he said. "When they really began to do what the coaching staff asked, it was night and day."
Poland’s outlook on life and soccer also immediately shifted.
No longer able to play the game, he’d found a new purpose. The satisfaction in it was immense, and so much of it had not a thing to do with wins and losses.
It was the people, that coach-player relationship. He’d never experienced anything quite like it.
"The biggest aspect is seeing these guys grow as players and men," said the 28-year-old Poland. "If it’s just me developing them as players, then it’s not worth it. My No. 1 reason for doing this is that 15-20 years later, I want them to look back and see how they developed as husbands and fathers, and for me to be able to say that I had a positive impact in that development. I think my biggest strength is getting players to know that I am completely on their side and that I want what’s best for them."
Poland, who married in December, returned to Finland from the United States on Feb. 7. That’s when Sporting Kristina’s training began.
Now, the Rochester Mayo graduate is right where he wants to be, directing this team.
"A door has opened for me now, and it would be foolish for me not to take advantage of it," Poland said. "This is what I want to do for my career."