AIK in USA: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
We hope. We’re discussing. We agreed. These are the words of front office members of AIK and Portland Timbers building what seem to be the early stages of a mutually beneficial, multi-continental relationship. The pre-season tournament currently in play at Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field is the first step in establishing a connection between the two clubs, part of an arrangement first forged at a scouting tournament in Africa in 2011.
AIK Chefscout Björn Wesström, Jens Andersson, AIK’s Sportchef and Timbers Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson met in Sierra Leone and struck up a friendship and mutual understanding of the goals of the other. “We had good chemistry from the start. That’s one thing that we truly believe in as a factor if you’re going to succeed at anything – you have to have good chemistry with the people you work with. So we started to talk about what we could do together that didn’t take power out of our systems but increased a better situation for both clubs,” Wesström said at AIK training on Wednesday afternoon. According to Wilkinson, the visit to Sierra Leone was facilitated by Patrick Mörk, an agent who helped the Timbers land Kalif Alhassan in the summer of 2010.
What Portland could do was help bring AIK to North America for the first time since 1957. A pre-season tournament would benefit both sides, providing additional matches against a completely different set of foes for AIK and giving the Timbers a European club to tout as part of the six-game round-robin affair. While the matches are useful exercises for clubs at roughly the same point in pre-season preparations, discussions between Wilkinson, Wesström and Andersson have given each side a chance to catch up and begin planning for the future, in person. “What’s important in scouting is adapting. Adapting is everything. You have to be there. You have to see the environment, the city, the pitch, the crowd. Then you know what the expectations will be. The culture, the club and all of the things like that. That’s the main reason why I’m here. To feel the environment, the people and the town,” said Wesström. “They’ve been over here every day,” said Wilkinson. “Once I go over there, I’m sure we’ll share ideas. I think it’s mutually beneficial. It’s not just us taking information from them. I think they’re looking at things they can do that are different that might better serve their players,” the Timbers’ Technical Director said from his office on Thursday.
Each club’s offering to the other is different, which is why the association makes so much sense. So what is the next step? Wesström sheds some light, though without a timetable: “I think the first thing would be to bring Gavin to Stockholm. I think that would be the smartest way to start something off. Just like we are here, getting a feeling. We’re starting to discuss matters. Obviously, we’re here, so it’s not just talking.” Moving beyond just talking would be the next big step for Portland. Having delivered on their end of the initial agreement – “The facilities, buses, times, hotels, meals – everything that Portland has provided to us has been perfect. We can’t ask for better, we’re very satisfied,” said Wesström – the Timbers can gain in the shorter- and longer-term.
In the nearer future, coupling the clubs’ associations with adidas could be a point of emphasis. AIK’s Chefscout added, “We met with Patrick [Nilsson] on Wednesday, who is the president of North American adidas. He’s Swedish, by the way, and from Stockholm. So that’s of course a factor. But we think they could be a part of it. Definitely the scouting bit.” Wilkinson echoed the sentiment, saying, “We’ve spoken to some of their top people to look at potential ways to bring adidas into our overseas scouting plans.” More specifically, “Ways to potentially form an academy together overseas, potentially in Sierra Leone.” For their part, adidas expressed excitement in having AIK in town, hosting the Gnaget for equipment testing, a tour of the campus and a 50% discount at the employee store.
The scouting bit is the longer-term promise, certainly for Portland. “Both scouting in Europe but also in Africa. I think we go there a little bit more often than the Timbers do so then we could help out. For me, it’s just looking at the player with the right glasses. I can look at a player on our team with Portland glasses, with Timbers glasses. Then maybe I can say he’s a good player but no, he won’t fit there,” said Wesström. Opening those markets would be a massive boost to the reach of the Timbers: “I can also start to share in some of their scouting notes from Europe while they can ask me about other players in the US. Same with Australia – we talk about those leagues that maybe I’m more familiar with. So it’s a sharing of knowledge. It’s like having an overseas scout employed by the club on both sides,” said a visibly excited Wilkinson.
As Portland institutes its new academy system, opportunities also arise in exposing young players to a European model. Wilkinson hopes to send individual players as well as entire youth teams, likely starting with the U14 Olympic Development Program (ODP) team, to Stockholm to, “experience that environment with people that I trust. To open their minds to something bigger.” That kind of working relationship, where the clubs are on relatively equal footing is potentially of great value in MLS. The conversation goes both ways, with the Timbers open to the possibility of bringing in an AIK player in his mid-20s on loan. Though no arrangements have been announced to date, it seems it will only be a matter of time before the sharing between AIK and Portland goes beyond scouting notes and trading war stories from the international scouting circuit.
Ultimately, the pre-season tournament in Portland might be seen as the launch pad for the budding relationship between the clubs. Despite existing half-way around the world, the clubs are already in a position of moving forward, together. Said Wilkinson, “We’ve started to look at many, many ways to partner. Basically it comes down to the premise that I think they know the game, I enjoy working with them and I enjoy their company in every regard.”
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