RedNation Online recently had the opportunity to speak with Mason Trafford, a young Canadian centre back who plays IFK Mariehamn in the Finnish Veikkausliiga. Before moving to Europe, the 6 ft 2 defender was a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps side that won the 2008 USL First Division Championship.
Trafford grew up in North Vancouver, British Columbia, where he attended Handsworth Secondary School and played club soccer for the North Shore Selects. As a youth player, he honed his skills under the eye of legendary soccer coach Roman Tulis and had the opportunity to play against some of the top youth squads in the world - Bayern Munich,1860 Munich, Nac Breda, Ajax Amsterdam and other. Trafford played for two years on the B.C. Provincial Team and then played four years of college soccer at University of Nevada, Las Vegas in NCAA Division 1, where he was team captain in his final year with the Running Rebels. In addition to soccer, Trafford also excelled academically, graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science/Accounting degree.
At the professional level, Trafford made his debut with the senior Vancouver Whitecaps side on August 15, 2008. After playing for two years with his hometown club, he signed with Finnish club IFK Mariehamn on August 29th, 2010.
In this interview, Mason and RedNation discuss his experiences playing in Finland, his time with the Vancouver Whitecaps, playing the centre back position and his goals for the future.
RedNation: How did you settle in at your new playing home in Mariehamn, a Finnish island in the Baltic Sea?
Mason Trafford: It was actually quite easy to settle in Mariehamn. Mariehamn is a small city, a place where everyone knows one another and especially being a football player for IFK, the people of Mariehamn welcomed me warmly. More importantly, everyone at the club - the management, coaches, and mainly the players - all made me feel accepted and a part of the group immediately.
RedNation: You made seven appearances with IFK Mariehamm last season. How quickly did you adjust to Finnish football and how would you assess your performances?
Mason Trafford: I adjusted quickly. The style of football is quite similar to the North American style. In terms of performances, my first three or four games were probably my best. I felt really confident with my role in the team; the coaching staff told me exactly what they wanted and I was comfortable with what they asked. Those first games were against the best teams in the Veikkausliiga (HJK,TPS and HAKA), and I think my performances in those matches were important to prove to everyone that I could play and be a big part of the team.
RedNation: What are the main goals you want to achieve in your first full campaign in Finland?
Mason Trafford: I would love for IFK to finish in the top 3 and earn a spot in Europe. It would be an amazing achievement for the club, and it has always been a dream of mine to play in a European match. I want to be a regular starter and continue to have good performances, and ultimately get shutouts and win games.
RedNation: What is it that drives you to pursue a football career in Finland of all places?
Mason Trafford: I ended up in Finland by chance really. My agent, Justin Stone, heard there were some teams looking for central defenders. We sent my video and they liked me. Next thing, I was on a plane to Helsinki. Now that I'm in Mariehamn, I'm happy because it is a good club, and a potential launching point to other European countries. It's all worked out really well. I do have a business degree and I worked hard to get that, but soccer has always been my heart, and it's that love for the game that keeps me on the field and not in the office.
RedNation: Canadians David Monsalve and Tosaint Ricketts are two Canadians that have played recently in the Veikkausliiga. Did you speak to them or anyone else to get the lowdown on the league before deciding to leave for Scandinavia?
Mason Trafford: I didn't actually. I have never met Monslave, but I did play against Ricketts in one of our last games. That guy can run!
RedNation: Finland has been described both as a jumping off point to other leagues in Europe and one that often results in footballers returning to North America as better players. What are you ultimately hoping to get from playing in Finland?
Mason Trafford: Exactly that. I'm hoping that it is a launching off point for my career. I think the style of football in Europe suits me, and I'm looking forward to putting some roots down in Finland and really improving as a player. Ultimately, I'd like to continue to move up the European ladder, and maybe one day even return to MLS. But for now, I am happy in Finland, and I am just taking it one day at a time. I find that if I look too far into the future, I tend to lose my way a bit. First things first, the upcoming season with IFK, earning a starting position, and winning football matches.
RedNation: Your former hometown club, the Vancouver Whitecaps, will be kicking off their first season in Major League Soccer next season. Have you kept an eye on them since you left the team and will you follow their progress in the top flight in North America?
Mason Trafford: Yes, I still check their website. I still have some friends on the team and I'm really excited for them next year. I think it's going to be really cool for Vancouver to have an MLS team, and the rivalries that will develop with TFC, Seattle, Portland are going to be amazing to watch. I'm really interested in seeing how management puts the team together and I will definitely continue to follow their progress.
RedNation: You were also a member of the highly regarded Whitecaps Residency program. How did your time in that program make you into a better player?
Mason Trafford: There is actually some confusion there. I wasn't actually a full time part of the residency program. I did play a few games and train occasionally with them, but I signed directly for the first team. When I first signed, I played those games to get some fitness and match sharpness so I was ready to step into the first team.
RedNation: You have said in the past that the Whitecaps couldn’t quite settle on what position you would play, but that Mariehamn picked you up specifically to play in your favoured centre-back slot. Is that the position you want to focus on for the remainder of your career? If so, why do you think that position best suits you as a player?
Mason Trafford: Playing so many positions for Vancouver was a learning process — as soon as I would start to get comfortable in a certain role, it would change and I'd have to start all over again. It was tough. That being said, I think it ultimately helped me become a better player. I was forced to develop different aspects of my game. I had the opportunity to play alongside some experienced pro's like Martin Nash and Chris Pozniak. Center-back is where I'd like to play for the rest of my career. I feel most comfortable at CB, and I think it suits me because I have decent size, but I also bring a technical aspect to the position. Spending time in central midfield and also on the wings both in college and in Vancouver has allowed me to develop the technical aspect of the game, and I think that is why IFK ultimately signed me. They needed someone who could play out of the back and link up with the rest of the team. This is the type of player I am.
RedNation: How does the football culture in Finland differ from that of North America?
Mason Trafford: Just being in Europe, there is a different feel surrounding football. Finland has a large hockey following, similar to Canada, but there is also passionate support for their football teams. It is really quite similar to what I experienced in Vancouver. Vancouver has a passionate support group, The Southsiders, and IFK has a similar group in The Green Machine. The main difference is the importance and pressure on individual games because of the need for teams to either avoid relegation or earn a spot in Europe. Each game is so important, and you can really feel that tension and energy within the grounds.
RedNation: You have often described yourself as a player who people didn’t have superstar expectations for and as someone who has often snuck in the back door in your career. Do you like being a type of underdog? How would you like people to describe you as a player?
Mason Trafford: I do like being the underdog. It's motivation for me to prove that I am a serious player, and every time I move up in the football world, I feel like I am proving so many people wrong. I hope one day I will have the chance to wear a Canadian National Team jersey, and everyone who told me I wasn't good enough growing up will look at me and say “Wow, we made a mistake there.”
RedNation: What are you greatest memories from your time with the Whitecaps?
Mason Trafford: The day I first signed was something I'll never forget. It was the realization of a lifelong dream of becoming a professional footballer. Winning the Championship in 2008 as a first year pro was also an unbelievable experience. Finally, our trip to Africa was unreal. That was a once in a lifetime experience.
RedNation: Which defenders in world football do you admire and try to learn from?
Mason Trafford: My favorite is Vidic. I love the way he plays: tough, aggressive, passionate. He makes any forward's life a nightmare. I try and add these elements to my game.
RedNation: What are the team goals that Mariehamn have in mind for next year and what has the coach told you about your role with the team?
Mason Trafford: First, we need to improve on our league position from last year. The club is also good enough to challenge for a spot in Europe, and that would be so huge for the small city of Mariehamn. In terms of my role, they want me to be a starting center-back that leads by example and brings passion and energy to the team. Everything else I will find out when I go back in January!
RedNation: What are your strengths as a player and in which areas do you feel you still need to improve?
Mason Trafford: One my strengths is my ability to motivate and get the best from the players around me. This was never asked of me in Vancouver, but I've really enjoyed the new responsibility with IFK. I'm a mobile center-back with a good left foot, I love playing a diagonal ball, and also linking up with the midfielders. Physically, I think I'm still developing, and all players can continue to improve this aspect of their game. Being more assertive is also something I'm continuing to develop. I want to continue to improve in all aspects of the game. There is still so much that I want to do and accomplish in football and I will need to continue to improve if I am to realize all of my goals.