On the 10th anniversary of HIFK:s unforgettable match against Ilves in Tampere, that was to first step in a memorable qualification series, we decided to speak to one of the most memorable players that season. In goal for HIFK that match was the American addition to the squad: Kellan Wilson.
Kellan, I guess first off it’s good to go back to the basics – you joined HIFK in the summer of 2010, and stayed at HIFK for one and a half season. How did you end up in HIFK and Helsinki?
After my playing career in Germany ended in 2008 I moved back to California to pursue coaching at the University I attended (St. Mary’s College of California). During that time I met my future wife Maija Lähde, as she was playing her final season for the women’s basketball team at St. Mary’s College. She of course is originally from Espoo, Finland. She was given the opportunity to play on the Finnish national team and also was offered a professional contract to play for Espoo Team (Now Honka). We realized that we were probably going to spend the rest of our lives together and decided to move to Finland so she could continue to play basketball and also so I could hopefully gain the trust of her family and learn a bit more about her Finnish culture. I still had dreams of playing soccer, and after a few tryouts with a couple of clubs in Finland I ended up signing with HIFK. It was the best decision I could have ever made!
Do you remember your first impressions of the team, the club and the league?
I definitely remember my first training session for HIFK. I was a bit nervous, but I was also very excited because I knew about the traditions and ambitions of the club. The coaching staff (Honsu, Tema, and Ville) were very welcoming, but as I walked into the locker room for the first time, I really don’t think they expected me to make the team. I was the only foreign player at the time, I really didn’t know a word of Finnish, and I hadn’t played soccer at a high level for about 2 years. I guess that I made a good enough impression because they offered me a spot on the team a day later after training. The players were incredibly welcoming, and I soon found out that a few of them (Sami and Innu) played college soccer in the US. I felt like I fit in right away!
That being said, almost every time I visit in the summer we try to arrange a night for a lot of players from that 2010 team to get together. We have done a sauna night together, but usually try to do a night out in the bars in Helsinki. The players from that team really hold a special place in my heart. I think we all bonded so well off the field and that’s why we had so much success on the field. I’m still in touch with a lot of them to this day. In fact, one of the other goalkeepers from that team Jens Forsman I consider to be one of my best friends in the world and he’s also the Godfather to my son Kayden.
It’s now 10 years since the 10th of October 2010. A date that will long be remembered by HIFK fans. What are your memories from the match against Ilves on that day?
Wow, it’s crazy to think it’s already been 10 years because in my mind it truly still feels like it happened yesterday. The Ilves game was especially fun because the stadium was full of fans and of course it was the most meaningful game for HIFK in many years. After winning 1stplace in our region, I remember feeling like there was no doubt in my mind we were the best team in the Kakkonen. We were on a streak of I think about 9-10 matches where we didn’t drop any points and the entire team was filled with confidence. We loved playing soccer with each other and you could feel within the team that we were going to do something special in the promotion games.
HIFK opened the scoring after 30 minutes, but Ilves tied in the 79thminute, and if I remember correctly, it was one of those situations where Ilves kept putting pressure and pressure, but didn’t score – and then HIFK scored an unforgettable goal when Petri Heinänen headed the ball into Ilves’ net. What was it like in the last minutes of that match, and how was it to see the last goal from the other side of the pitch?
Yes, I felt like we were controlling most of the match and of course scored a great goal to go ahead early in the game. All of a sudden, late in the 2ndhalf Ilves scored a goal to tie the game and the feeling of calm and control became a feeling anxiety. I remember the goal Ilves scored very well because as a goalkeeper those types of moments are unfortunately the ones you remember the most. They continued to pressure our defensive line without success in the final 10 minutes and after feeling like we were going to draw the match late into injury time, Heinänen scored one of the most memorable and special goals of my playing career. The view I had of this moment from the back of the field was incredible because it happened directly in front of Stadin Kingit. The fan section exploded in joy and I even remember some of the players from our bench running onto the field to celebrate the goal. Shortly after that goal the referee ended the match and we all ran to the far side of the field to celebrate with the fans. It was a magical moment in all of our lives but we also realized that we were only half way finished with our ultimate goal of promotion.
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Then after a few weeks it was time for the match against FC Santa Claus, at home on Brahen kenttä. By all records I could find, and what I remember myself, it was a nerve-wrecking match. How did you feel before this, and how did it feel when Markus Tanner scored the winner in the 86th minute of the match?
After we beat Ilves in the first match away, we knew that it would all come down to the home game against Santa Claus. I won’t tell you that we didn’t have any nerves going into the match, but I will tell you that we were very confident that we could win that game on our home field. Markus Tanner (The Fireman) was definitely a fan favorite and after he scored the goal that eventually sent us to the Ykkonen we knew that promotion was possible. I very much remember the final chance Santa Claus had to attack our goal. It was a free kick deep into our half of the field. They sent everyone on their team into our penalty box and I remember thinking if we defend this moment properly we will be champions. I came off my line and punched the ball out of the box and about 20 seconds later we were promoted. It was truly one of the best and most memorable moments of my life.
Looking back now, what was your favourite moment at the club?
Well obviously my most memorable moment at the club was our promotion to the Ykkonen. That being said, there was one other moment that stands out in my mind. With about 3-4 fixtures left in the regular season in 2010 we played an away game against SC Riverball in Joensuu. We were both at the top of the table maybe separated by 1 point at the time. It was a LONG bus drive out to Joensuu and this was the game that would probably decide 1stplace in our division. The team was very motivated and if I remember correctly we won the game 4-0. It was a massive step towards what we wanted to accomplish and that game in my opinion was the game that gave us the confidence to win it all. The game was amazing, but the bus ride home was even more memorable for me. I truly feel like we became a much closer team after that bus ride and in the end of it became a single unit rather than a collection of individual players. We sang and chanted HIFK songs, drew HIFK tattoos on each other’s arms, had a few celebratory beers, and truly enjoyed every single minute of that ride home after our dominating performance. It was a moment that definitely stands out in my memory and a bus ride that I will never forget.
A bit of an oddball question but; do you still get chills when you think of the “USA, USA, USA” chant going off from the fans after a big save?
YES, of course!!!!! I was the number 3 goalkeeper when I first joined the team, but I believe after 2-3 games of sitting on the bench I was given the opportunity to be the number 1 and start my first match for HIFK. I will never forget the first time I heard the greatest fans in Finnish soccer chant “USA, USA, USA”. It was quite unexpected because I didn’t think any of the fans knew who I was or specifically where I came from. I was truly humbled by their support and it made me want to save 100 shots per game so I could hear them shout it more!
What have you been up to since leaving HIFK?
After I moved back to California in 2012, I really wanted to somehow stay in the sport of soccer. Since my playing career was finished, the next logical step for me was to try and find a place I could coach the game I love. Although I never imagined that I would coach on the women’s side of soccer, I was given the opportunity to coach Division 1 Women’s soccer at the University level. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made and now I am entering my 9thyear of coaching at California State University Fullerton. We have won 5 conference championships in the past 8 years and I absolutely love my career in coaching.
Do you manage to follow HIFK from California?
My wife’s family all live in Espoo and, so we visit Finland every summer and every other Christmas. I try to make it to at least 1 HIFK game every summer with my kids Madeleine (7) and Kayden (4). It truly brings me great joy to follow HIFK’s success in making it back to the Veikkausliiga and of course I wake up every match day to check their results. I wish there was some way I could live stream their games from California but I have not been able to figure out a reliable way to do that. Either way, the club and of course the fans have turned me into a HIFK fan for life!
A bit of a cliché perhaps, but completely valid in your case: Is there anything you would like to say to the HIFK fans?
To the greatest fans in all of Finland, thank you for your constant support through both the good and of course some of the bad times during my days in Finland. I will never forget the journey we went through in 2010. I think I speak for all of the players that have ever played for HIFK when I say YOU are the lifeline and heartbeat of the club! The energy you bring to EVERY SINGLE MATCH is out of this world and always helps us to give our best effort on the field. NEVER stop supporting this great club, you are the ones who make it fun to come to the stadium every single day. I hope to see you all very soon at a HIFK match next summer!