Just as it did for thousands of his countrymen in years gone by, Minnesota beckons to a new Swedish immigrant.
John Alvbåge arrived in Minneapolis from Göteborg after a whirlwind of negotiations and immediately became the No. 1 goalkeeper for the fledgling Minnesota United of Major League Soccer. Alvbåge is on loan to the expansion side until July, with an option to make the move permanent. For the 34-year-old net minder, United and MLS offer a chance he simply could not refuse.
"It really did happen very fast,” Alvbåge said. “When MLS and Minneapolis came to me I knew I might not get the chance again. It is an opportunity to come to the U.S. and tryout this league. It has such good players and is really an up-and-coming league. I am 34 now so I if had turned this down I think I would regret it if I looked back. This opportunity is great.”
Alvbåge is coming off what for most goalkeepers is a solid season. After a slow start in 2016, IFK Göteborg finished fourth in Allsvenskan. Alvbåge played in 29 of 30 matches, allowing 41 goals while making 111 saves and finishing with a .730 save percentage. It is a far cry from his 2015 season when he led Göteborg to a second-place finish and capped the year with Goalkeeper of the Year honors at the annual Fotball Gala.
"It was a decent season,” he said. “It was not the best season. We struggled a bit on defense but it was a good season, but for me, maybe, it wasn’t as good as I would have liked.”
The deal with United came on quickly as the expansion club was on the verge of entering its preseason without an experienced goalkeeper. The Minnesota club approached IFK general manager Mats Gren about a loan and Alvbåge had nothing but praise for how Gren handled the request.
"Mats was really supportive,” he said. “There are some bosses out there who would have said Minnesota has to pay a lot of money or something, but Mats was really good. He and I talked and he told me 'I know you’re 34 and maybe you don’t have too many years left [on the pitch] and this is a great opportunity.'"
Alvbåge said the presence of two highly rated young goalkeepers at Göteborg, Erik Dahlin and Pontus Dahlgren, made it somewhat easier for Gren to allow the former Swedish international to leave for Minnesota.
"They are both very good,” Alvbåge said. “So, I am not worried. My future is in my hands so I don’t think Göteborg is going to force me to come back.”
Alvbåge became one of the most accomplished goalkeepers in MLS when he signed with United. In his five seasons with Göteborg, he won the Swedish Cup twice, silver medals in the Allsvenskan twice, played in the Champions and Europa leagues. He also played for Örebro in the Allsvenskan, spent three season at Viborg in Denmark, where he also played in the Europa League, and was the No. 3 goalkeeper on Sweden’s 2006 World Cup team. He knows all that experience will be crucial to a side newly promoted from the second-tier NASL.
"This is a very young team. We have 25 new players here and we’re trying to build a whole new team,” Alvbåge said. “For me, I know it is a great opportunity. Most clubs have American goalkeepers and America is really producing some really good goalkeepers, so there is pressure on me as a foreign goalkeeper to do my best.”
Alvbåge is the second big-name Swedish goalkeeper to play in MLS. Former IFK Göteborg net minder Thomas Ravelli played for now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny in 1998 in what proved to be a tumultuous season for the Swede. Alvbåge said he was not too concerned about any Swedish-MLS precedents.
"No, I don’t think about that at all,” he said. “[Former Seattle Sounders midfielder] Erik Friberg won the championship last year, so I don’t worry about the guys who maybe didn’t do that well. I am here to give my all and try to help my club succeed.”
Friberg left Seattle during the January transfer window and returned to BK Hacken, the club he left in 2016 when he joined Seattle. The Sounders quickly replaced Friberg with former Swedish international Gustav Svensson, who spent last season in China.
If MLS has not been the kindest league to Swedes, Alvbåge said coming to Minnesota is “like coming home.”
"There is a lot of Scandinavian history. This was a big place for Scandinavian immigrants who made this place,” he said. “If you look at the surnames even today you see Erikssons and Anderssons and Lindahls. Plus the weather is like Scandinavia so it's a lot like home.”
Grant Wahl, a columnist for Sports Illustrated, picked United to finish last in MLS's inaugural season. Head coach Adrian Heath and Alvbåge both say that is fine by them.
"Maybe if I was a writer who never played football or just sat in front of the TV watching it, I would pick last, too,” Alvbåge quipped. “For us, that’s perfect and will use that as motivation.”
Despite his confidence, Minnesota does face a tough season. Although the Loons kept several of the players that helped the club advance from the second-tier NASL to MLS, many of the players on the roster had never played together. Alvbåge said as a goalkeeper, his job is to provide leadership for his new teammates.
"I want to try to help the team much as I can,” he said. "Minnesota brought me here because they wanted an experienced goalkeeper. I have played a lot of games. Every goalkeeper down to lowest level can make great saves, but what makes a goalkeeper reach the highest level is to play with stability. You have to read the game well. I want to bring that to this team and do what they brought me here for. I want to play with good stability.”
Minnesota opens its season March 3 against the Portland Timbers. The match is available on FoxSPorts 1.