Since becoming a professional as a 19-year-old, Brian ‘Cobi’ Span has believed in closing his eyes and letting his soccer career take him where it may.
When he opened them on Sept. 26, that thought process was validated by the trophy in his hand.
A member of IFK Mariehamn, Span and his teammates completed a remarkable run to the Finnish Cup on Monday that culminated in a 2-1 victory over FC Inter in the tournament’s finale. The trophy was the club’s first major honor since being founded in 1919.
For Span, who joined the club earlier this year, the trophy victory has quickly become the highlight of his career. Yet, while the achievement feels special on both a personal and club level, the real payoff may come from what’s next.
“I don’t think anyone really expected the team to come out and win a big trophy like this,” Span told SBI. “When we won the semifinal against Helsinki and were going to the finals, everyone got really excited and got behind us. We had tons of fans come to the game and travel all the way to the finals.
“When we won it, you could see it on all the fans’ faces and the people working for the club and the board. They were really happy for us. Now, we have a chance to compete in the Europa League next year, and that was the goal for the team this year, and we accomplished that.”
The 23-year-old’s journey to the small island city of Mariehamn is one that has taken many twists and turns.
Span’s career started following his sophomore year of college with a move to Swedish club Djurgården. A productive stint soon followed, but Span’s contract was not renewed by the club, prompting a move home.
The winger was then allocated to FC Dallas, although the move never took off the way Span hoped. Unable to crack the starting lineup, Span was loaned to Orlando City to help feed his cravings for more game time.
Span departed FC Dallas shortly into the following preseason after he was informed that playing time would be hard to come by due to the club’s talent on the flanks.
Span was thankful for FC Dallas’ honesty, and he immediately went in search for a new club in Europe. On the recommendation of former Djurgården teammates Philip Sparrdal Mantilla and Jani Lyyski, Span found a club that could offer him game time, and a culture to match.
Span landed in Mariehamn, a city has which a population of just under 12,000 and is located on the island of Åland. A unique blend of Swedish and Finnish culture, Span admits it took time to settle into both his new home and club.
The city is, in a way, in its own little world separate from mainland Finland. Yet, Mariehamn heavily embraces its unique status as a sort of outsider, as well as the soccer club that represents that belief.
“It feels like everyone here is kind of like a family, a part of this island,” Span said. “You can feel that. Everyone knows each other here. You see the same people around town all the time and people say ‘Hi’ to you. It feels like its own little place.
“It’s not like we have tons of fans, but the ones that we have are at every game. We see them around town and you can have a conversation with them because they’re all good people, too. They’re not going to be jerks to us if we lose, and they’ll be happy for us if we win. They’re always behind us and they’re really happy for us this year to win the cup.”
Span, for one, never saw himself becoming part of such a tight-knit European community. A New Yorker born and bred, the 23-year-old now has a Swedish girlfriend and has come to embrace the travels that have come his way.
Span’s father, a drummer by trade, was one to always tell the soccer star to let the chips fall where they may when it comes to his career path. Whether he ended up in New York, Dallas or Europe, Span was presented with a unique opportunity that would allow him to see the world.
“I feel like every team we play against is physical and strong but also smart tactically,” Span said of the league he currently features in. “I think it’s not a top, top league. I think the Swedish league is a little bit better and MLS is better because MLS has a lot of really top quality players, Designated Players and stuff like that, but it’s a good league for young players to come in and get games.
“I’m pretty fortunate to have experienced all these different places. I’m just trying to work my way up and reach my best potential as a player and make it to the top of the game as a player in a top league.”
Span says he still has a long way to go to reach his full potential. For one, he is looking to create more goals for his team. In addition, Span says he is looking to become a bit more unpredictable, taking more risks between the lines.
The risks that Span took outside of them got him to where he is today. One day, the winger says, he may look for a return to the U.S. and MLS play. Yet, for now, Span is glad to be a part of something special in a city he can now call home.
“It’s a European trophy,” Span said of the team’s recent triumph, “and it’s really difficult to come over as an American, and not even just as an American, but as any player and win a trophy in Europe. It’s a good feeling. We worked really hard to get there and we deserved it.
“This is what you work so hard for: to have moments like this to show your talents on the big stage. We have an opportunity to play against good teams and play in such a large European competition. It’s really exciting for the club and for every player individually, because every player wants to reach that top level. It’s exciting.”