Something that sets Villanova’s men’s soccer team apart from most other programs at the university is that its star forward began playing soccer at a community center in Switzerland, and one of its midfielders got his start in a small fishing town in Iceland.
At a school like Villanova, where most of its students come from the surrounding states, coming across someone from another country is relatively rare. This is what makes the soccer team particularly fascinating: many young men from different parts of the world converge on a suburb of Philadelphia to continue their athletic careers after seeing opportunity here.
The Wildcats’ men’s soccer team, which takes a 6-2 record into Saturday’s game at Xavier, has players from five countries outside of the United States: Switzerland, Iceland, Canada, Ghana, and Germany. The rest of the team comes largely from New Jersey, New York and Maryland.
The team prides itself on this diversity, which creates a mixture of cultures that can be rare to find on a sports team. And at Villanova, these international players contribute big-time.
Coach Tom Carlin calls Lyam MacKinnon, a 6-1 forward from Lausanne, Switzerland, the team’s “most talented guy.” And MacKinnon has the stats to back it up — he is tied for the team lead in both goals (three) and assists (two) this season. Last spring, MacKinnon also co-led the team in scoring, contributing two goals and two assists in nine games. Beyond that, he is recognized as a leader on his team.
“He’s turned it on this year as far as leadership,” Carlin said. “He’s doing a good job with helping himself and others, a really driven young man. He’s one of our best attacking guys, but also just a gentleman and really a good person.”
MacKinnon being a combination of a good person and a great soccer player made him a desirable recruit for Villanova. In turn, the Swiss forward has learned a different approach to his favorite sport from his American teammates.
“The competitiveness of people is one thing I would take away from here, and try to learn from here,” he said. “The rhythm of the game is very different. [In Switzerland] the pace was sometimes higher, but it wasn’t as changing as here. Here we go slow to very fast, and that was the biggest thing to adapt to.”
In addition to learning how to play the game differently, MacKinnon came to the United States to face different challenges and competition. This is why Villanova in particular was a good fit for him.
“I like the conference in which we compete,” MacKinnon said of the Big East. “That was, for me, the main thing. I want to compete in the best conferences. I want to test myself against what’s best in this country for soccer. Obviously, there’s really high standards here. I wanted to challenge myself on the field and off the field as well.”
The diversity on Villanova’s team provides more than just talent — the team culture is something that the players and coaches are proud of, and feel to be unique to their squad. Midfielder Viktor Benediktsson, from Hafnarfjörður, Iceland, has lived in other countries, including England, Norway and Sweden, and believes that the way all of the players mesh makes the team special.
“I always said that if there would only be one type of human being, it would be so boring, and everything would be so bad,” Benediktsson said. “I think it makes things more fun, learning about other people’s culture and countries. It’s something that I think can only make you a better person.”
Benediktsson describes his ultimate decision to play college soccer in the U.S. as a “strange decision.” He originally planned to sign as a professional in Sweden, before he was invited to a showcase tournament in Iceland where Villanova took notice of him. In fact, Carlin flew to Iceland, had Benediktsson meet him in the airport for an hour-and-a-half, then flew back to the U.S. after having persuaded Benediktsson to join the program.
“He said, ‘I have to go I have to catch the next flight,’ I was like, ‘Wait, so he came there just to talk to me and convince me?’” Benediktsson said. “And he convinced my mom. So if you can do that, yeah, OK.”
This type of recruiting is not unusual as soccer is a global sport, and the most popular one in many countries outside of the United States. Because of this, many colleges, including Villanova, heavily recruit outside of the country, which is a bit of a different process.
“There are a lot of different kinds of agencies that represent these players, and they’re seeking us out,” Carlin said. “They’re sending us videos, they’re running showcases. A lot of college coaches are traveling internationally to go watch these players, and some of them are recruiting off the video, but most of them are going into these countries, and going to the showcases watching them play club games. So it’s becoming commonplace.”
This ever-growing practice of recruiting outside of the United States is beneficial to programs like Villanova’s, and to the players themselves. Teams get talented athletes who are a bit older on their roster, and in turn, the players get an opportunity to continue with their sport while earning a degree and gaining a new life experience.
“To have the opportunity to still potentially have a professional career but get a degree, it’s very advantageous to them,” Carlin said. “So, for us to be able to provide that, and get a little bit more veteran players, it’s just a natural fit. And we still try to keep a balance of local regional players with the blend of some international guys as well.”
Villanova in particular stood out to these foreign players because of its educational value and proximity to a major city. However, there are certain things that these players are still getting used to in the States.
“When I got here, what really struck me was the kindness of people,” MacKinnon said. “People are more talkative than in Switzerland, where people are more introverted. The first two weeks, I was like, ‘Everybody’s talking to me,’ and that was really interesting.”
For these players, coming to Villanova made sense. And they have made quite the impact on and off the field, while Villanova has proved a place worth moving so far for.
“Once [the coaches] convince you that they believe in you, and they believe in the vision and that you are a part of that plan, then it’s something that is tempting,” Benediktsson said. “I was like, just, ‘Oh, why not, what do I have to lose here?’ ”