FSU's title game path starts in Iceland
CARY, N.C. -- Dagny Brynjarsdottir can only shake her head, partly to indicate her answer and partly in bemusement, when people in this country occasionally ask if her native Iceland is full of "snow houses."
Yes, she patiently confirms when others inevitably ask, Iceland is the one with more green than ice. Greenland, at least for the time being, is the one with more ice than green. It's oversimplified, but if it helps paint a picture, so be it.
In truth, the chilly rain that settled over Cary on Saturday and replaced the balmy 75-degree temperature during the previous day's semifinals was an accurate representation of the climate back home this time of year, at least along the more populated areas of Iceland's southern coast and surrounding islands.
Iceland isn't what a lot of people envision.
Then again, there were misconceptions on both sides when Brynjarsdottir arrived at Florida State.
"Before I visit Tallahassee for the first time, I was imagining like New York City or something," Brynjarsdottir said. "So when I came to Tallahassee I was like, 'Oh, this is not too bad.' It's kind of like a country thing there."
Florida's state capital may be a lot of things, but the Big Apple it is not.
It seems a strange fit to find Brynjarsdottir and teammate Berglind Thorvaldsdottir making at least temporary homes in the heart of the Florida panhandle, but if the Seminoles are to claim the program's first soccer national championship in Sunday's final against UCLA (ESPNU, 3 p.m. ET), it will come with a big assist from the small nation in the North Atlantic. Possibly some big goals, too, from the two players at the front of Florida State's attack.
Iceland's population isn't just smaller than that of any state in this country, as Brynjarsdottir noted, it's smaller than the population of Raleigh, N.C., the city next to Cary. Iceland's population is only marginally bigger than the total undergraduate enrollment of the ACC's 15 universities (the difference will be around 60,000 once Louisville arrives next year).
Asked if he had spent much time in Iceland, Florida State coach Mark Krikorian replied only "enough," as in, enough to come away with two players who have combined for 21 goals and eight assists this season. But a man who has as many international connections as any coach in the American game didn't go in blind in adding to a long list of countries that have provided players to his program.
Although the women's national team in Iceland has yet to qualify for a World Cup, it not only qualified for last summer's European Championship but advanced to the knockout phase on the strength of a Brynjarsdottir goal. The men's national team also narrowly missed qualification for the World Cup for the first time recently in its bid to become the smallest country to reach that tournament.
"For a small country they do an awful lot of real good things," Krikorian said. "I think they have a great deal of pride in what it is they're trying to accomplish on both the men's and the women's side there.
"One of the things that's probably helped them the best is they really know who they are. They know what their strengths are, and they know what their weaknesses are. And they know they're a small country. They know the number of kids, the participants playing, isn't like the United States and many other countries. They have to have a different methodology in terms of their development and so on. And it appears as though they have tried to find different ways to help their players to grow."
Icelandic players have come to the U.S. for college for some time -- Richmond's Edda Gardarsdottir, Notre Dame's Gudrun Gunnarsdottir and Duke's Thora Helgadottir among the more notable since 2000. But the more common path followed by elite young players in the country is to move from Iceland's semi-professional league to Sweden, which has one of the world's most established and functional professional leagues, the Damallsvenskan.
Since she was barely a teenager, Thorvaldsdottir wanted to try the American route. Coming from a small island off the main body of Iceland, where her father is a fisherman, the prospect of some personal freedom intrigued her.
"The experience, just like live in another country and take care of myself and not eat dinner from my mom," Thorvaldsdottir said of her motivation. "I wanted to try and take care of myself and speak another language."
She tried to talk Brynjarsdottir, a friend from the Icelandic national program, into the idea but met with a lukewarm reception at best. One of the bright talents in the country (only 22, she has already appeared more than 30 times for the senior national team), Brynjarsdottir assumed she would move to the Swedish league when she finished high school.
Colleges in the U.S. reached out to her, but she never bothered to respond. Krikorian's timing happened to be perfect, his entreaty coming as she looked across the Atlantic and wondered if there might be reason to reassess.
"I thought it was just a good step for me," Brynjarsdottir said. "Everyone on the U.S. national team went to college first. That was the thing that I was nervous about, that if I would go to college maybe I would not be as good if I would just go straight pro. But I was like, 'Everyone on the U.S. national team goes to college first.'"
She arrived first, a year ahead of Thorvaldsdottir. More than a few times that year, Thorvaldsdottir would wait up until the wee hours of the morning to Skype with her friend once Brynjarsdottir was done with the day's routine of school, practice and tutoring. The younger of the two wanted all the details of the American experience, and Brynjarsdottir played the role of recruiter expertly, not that it was a particularly tough sell.
While the two often speak Icelandic to each other on the field or around the team, leading to what goalkeeper Kelsey Wys described as a favored pastime among other players of pretending to understand a language that offers none of the familiarity of even Spanish or French to English, both are adept in English. That wasn't true for Brynjarsdottir in her first year, but in addition to taking English beyond what was required in high school, Thorvaldsdottir turned to one of history's best means of spreading the language in her efforts to prepare.
"It's hard," Thorvaldsdottir said. "Thank God I watched a lot of movies and TV shows, maybe like one year before I decided to come here, I watched a lot of TV shows with no subtitles so I could hear what they were saying."
There were challenges on the field, too. Brynjarsdottir was asked to step into the creative attacking role vacated by former All-American Amanda DaCosta, who Krikorian called one of the best players in program history. Brynjarsdottir had five goals and three assists as a freshman, respectable totals, but even with a goal scorer like Tiffany McCarty up top, the Seminoles struggled to live up to their own offensive standards and were shut out in a semifinal against Stanford.
"Dagny's role was to come in and fill [DaCosta's] shoes, and she didn't really do a very good job to start," Krikorian said. "But she's kind of changed the way she plays because of the qualities she has. There's no one who is willing to work a whole lot harder than she is."
A second-team All-American this season and Florida State's leader with 14 goals, she is one of the most technically proficient attacking players in the college game, those skills and her 5-foot-11 frame (which may be shorting her an inch or two when you stand next to her) make up for any pace she gives up against top American forwards.
Thorvaldsdottir redshirted last season and has experienced her own growing pains this season as she hones her finishing touch, but her seven goals may just be scratching the surface of what's ahead. Together at the top of the formation, Brynjarsdottir often sitting just behind Thorvaldsdottir, they are a championship-caliber partnership.
Not unlike the partnership between Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie that Thorvaldsdottir somewhat apologetically still prefers to the brand of football preferred in Tallahassee.
"You can tell they have a connection on the field with each other," Wys said. "They talk to each other in Icelandic on the field, so I think that's only an advantage to us. It's fun to play with them.
"Dagny is definitely a great player, and she's improved over time. Berglind, she's been here awhile, but this is only her first year playing so she still has quite a long time here, as well, and I'm sure she'll only get better from here."
For the time being, they will try and bring a part of the national championship back to Iceland.
"They are very prideful in their country, as they should be," Wys said.
Just don't ask about the snow houses. Or Greenland.