On a rare day off from his job as a goalkeeper for Minnesota United, John Alvbage sat by the window of his one-bedroom apartment in downtown Minneapolis and blew kisses to his iPhone.
More than 4,000 miles away in Gothenburg, Sweden, 5-year-old Milli-Valentina responded to her dad by making a heart symbol with her hands, getting as close as she could to the tiny camera on her mom's iPhone.
His daughter, on a grocery shopping trip with her mother as it was 4:30 p.m. local time, proudly showed off a Lego set she was about to buy with Easter money from Grandma and Grandpa. For Alvbage, it was 9:30 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday, but much-coveted family time all the same.
For Alvbage, who signed in January, and many of his teammates, just about everything is new these days. They are not only navigating a new team and league, but they are also adjusting to life in a foreign country. Seven of United's 26 players, Alvbage included, are living in the U.S. for the first time.
Alvbage tries to call his family every day, but the time difference and their schedules make it tricky. When he wakes up, the kids — Milli-Valentina, 7-year-old Logan and 9-year-old Mercedes — are in school. His wife, Lisa, is at work. When he's finished with practice in the early afternoon, the kids are already in bed.
To help bridge the gap, he constantly texts them videos and pictures, and he sends his kids fun care packages, such as Pokemon cards and stuffed animals that are hard to find in Sweden.
"It's tough," said Alvbage, 34. "But thanks to FaceTime and stuff, it makes it easier. I can talk to them and see them.
"But then, of course, it's the physical part. You can't hug them."
While international players also are common in other sports, rarely do so many join a team pretty much simultaneously. What's more, they have been thrust into significant roles since signing with the Major League Soccer expansion franchise. Six of them — more than half the lineup — started the Loons' first match on March 3, a 5-1 blowout at Portland. Six also started the next match, a 6-1 beating by fellow expansion side Atlanta United FC at home.
Adjusting to unfamiliarity all at once has been an added obstacle for United (2-5-2) early this season. Only eight players had competed in Minnesota before, and only 11 had previous MLS experience.
For those seven players new to the country — five from Europe, two from Costa Rica — everything is not quite settled, even with the 10th match of the season set for Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium against Sporting Kansas City. Besides Alvbage, there's Vadim Demidov of Norway, Francisco Calvo and Johan Venegas of Costa Rica, Jerome Thiesson of Switzerland, Rasmus Schuller of Finland and Bashkim Kadrii of Denmark. Only Venegas had previous MLS experience, with two seasons in Montreal.
New life, new challenges
Take Thiesson, who joined the team barely two months ago, just before the Atlanta match.
He had to obtain a visa and travel from Zurich, his pregnant wife joining him in the Twin Cities two weeks ago. First, it was finding short-term housing and transportation, completing his entrance physical and going to Social Security appointments. Then it was looking for an apartment and a car, and establishing a bank account and a line of credit so he can actually pay for them.
Most of the new guys had to do this on top of traveling throughout the preseason from January in Arizona through February in Oregon and Florida, as well as for five of the first seven matches. And, of course, they had to actually do their jobs.
Thiesson said it is definitely a more complex process to come into the U.S. than it is to transfer to clubs within Europe. The hardest part of his move was just scheduling an appointment for his visa at the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland two hours away from his home, and filling out a rather exhaustive online questionnaire with everything from bank history to possible terrorist connections.
But the personal side of informing his family they would now be a long plane ride away when the newest Thiesson is born was even worse than the paperwork.
"I was all excited about everything, even about the problems. I wanted to live there, being abroad, alone, other country, other culture, other language," Thiesson said. "But the biggest problem was telling our families that we were going to take the baby with us. We had this meeting with them … and we were, like, asking them for permission."
Thiesson isn't the only one making this big change with an expanding family. Calvo, who has also taken on the role of team captain, and his wife are also expecting a baby; Venegas' wife just had a son in late March; and Demidov has an 8-month-old son.
Enjoying instead of stressing
The team tries to help the players with the transition by providing contacts with real estate agents, rental car companies and banks. Angie Blaker, in her 11th season as team administrator, facilitated the changeover for all 30-plus players and coaches on the team.
"I want them to not have to focus about all the other off-field stuff," she said. "I really want them to just worry about playing and performing well because if the team's doing well, it's better for all of us."
Schuller, the 25-year-old Finnish midfielder, began the season as a starter before losing his spot and then suffering an injury that has delayed his comeback. While the added stress of moving from home isn't something he or his teammates can hide behind when it comes to poor results, he said they aren't "only professional soccer players. There's lots of other stuff aside of that in a human being's life."
Schuller, who signed in January, said he only began to feel settled around the beginning of April. It was after having what he called a "realization" that, being a long way from home, he needed to start enjoying the experience instead of stressing so much about his performance.
Integrating to American life is easier with fellow new players experiencing the same trials and tribulations. In fact, Alvbage lives in the same apartment complex as Schuller, who has been here alone until recently when his girlfriend came to visit. The goalkeeper joked that they stand on their balconies, separated by a small courtyard, and communicate with each other via tin cans connected by string.
"I've been hanging out too much with John," Schuller said. "We drive together to practice every day. And then all the things you have to do when you move, get the bank account and get the apartments and everything, we have done that together as well."
'The kids are the thing'
After Alvbage's family FaceTime session a few Tuesdays ago, he made breakfast, using the stormtrooper toaster he purchased at the Mall of America. He killed some time at his apartment building's gym before heading to Afton State Park to do community service with the team.
That evening, plans called for maybe a movie at St. Anthony Main or in St. Louis Park. The next morning, another week of training began.
Since Alvbage has been here, he has seen the Wild, Timberwolves and Twins play and gone to various concerts. Without a car yet, he has ventured around the city via light rail and bus. He has even made friends outside of the team, from people he's met at various outings to a fan of the team who slid into his Instagram direct messages.
"I want to have an experience," Alvbage said of his time in Minnesota, especially since it is uncertain whether United will keep him after his loan expires July 15. "You're a soccer player 24/7, but you're here and doing your work for three, four hours every day, but after that, you have a lot of spare time. And my family's not here right now either, so I'm trying to do as much as I can."
Alvbage, who started those first two matches and had 10 goals scored on him before an injury, said adjusting to MLS has been another wake-up call. It's been maybe 12 years since he last allowed five goals in a match, he said.
Lisa Alvbage said the distance makes it tough to comfort her husband about matches or injuries that cost him his starting job.
"We talk on the phone, and of course I want to be there for him," she said. "I know when he lost a game in Sweden, the kids are the thing that make him happy. … The kids are like, 'Oh, Daddy, I love you. You're the best.'
"I think he misses that. I can feel that when I talk to him. He's sad."
While Alvbage could have easily stayed in Sweden with his family and the club where he had been the starter for five years, he said it is a dream come true to live in "Fargo-land or the Mighty Ducks-land." He saw the promise of a competitive league, a marginal pay bump and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Weighed against the small cost of being away from his family for a few months until they come over in June, Alvbage said he had no doubt about seizing this opportunity.
"If I rewind the tape, I would say yes 1,000 times out of 1,000, still," he said. "So I don't regret anything.
"I'm so happy to be here."