- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. (AP) - Thorfinnur Thorfinnson had never smelled the cake-like batter of a deep-fried Oreo before. He had seen a pickup truck, but nothing like the ones with knobby tires that frequent Highway 301.

So when the Icelandic-born soccer player arrived in Rocky Mount two years ago, it should have come as no surprise that the culture was a bit foreign to him.

The Nordic import stuck out like a sore thumb in the heart of tobacco country with his perfectly crafted combover, but on the practice fields behind the Division III college, he found his home.

Thorfinnson is one of 19 international soccer players who have made their way to N.C. Wesleyan for school and sport.

There is a player from the nomadic side of Russia, a trio from the sliver of a country known as Gambia, and a menacing?defender who fled Angola when the nation was at a civil war.

It’s as diverse as a melting pot can get, and it’s exactly what Battling Bishops coach Frankie Taal wants at Wesleyan.

“I feel like it’s one of these situations where there is talent from all the corners of the globe,” Joe Storer, the team’s captain said.

Storer, who’s from England, looks the most American out of the bunch with his handlebar mustache, but he’s right.

Through a unique recruiting strategy that calls for passports and player referrals, Taal has built a roster full of international flavor.

When N.C. Wesleyan played recently in the USA South Tournament, there were more nations represented on the field than when the founding members of NATO first got together.

The most peculiar country however is Iceland.

The island nation of just 330,000 people is home to Thorfinnson and two other Battling Bishops.

It’s traditionally known as an afterthought on the European soccer scene, but it represents the vision that Taal has for his program.

The fourth-year coach has taken a different approach when it comes to filling out his lineup sheets.

Instead of chasing after local high school players, he has instead invested his time in a global scouting network that stretches from the Swedish countryside to the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

Taal is in search of the best players in the world and if that means flying to Iceland to find them, he’s going to do just that.

“We took that route years and years ago,” Taal explained while sitting in his office. “It’s very difficult for us to get the best players in our own backyard. The best 18 and 19 year olds in North Carolina just do not want to play Division III soccer. They think they are too good for it, and there are just so many other options for them. So we have to look elsewhere”

The result has been scouting trips abroad and a fusion of international players coming together at Wesleyan. Taal, who grew up in Gambia, has made two separate trips to Iceland in the past three years.

He has also been to Chile and Brazil, and is planning a visit to Ecuador next month.

Thorfinnson said he first heard of Wesleyan when one of his old teammates from Iceland told him about the Bishops.

The word of mouth sparked the initial interest, but the deciding factor for him was when Taal came to Reykjavik and sold him on the balance of academics and soccer that he had to offer.

It was a pitch that Taal has used on players from all around the world, and the reason that he believes Wesleyan has such a high number of imports.

“I don’t see any team Division I, II or III that is diverse as our team. I think some NAIA teams have a lot of international students, however most of those NAIA schools that I see have players from one or two countries - and that’s it,” Taal said.

“What makes our team unique is that there are 13 different countries (represented) not just two.”

And every one of those players has a story.

Mario Andrade is at Wesleyan because of a referral. After leaving Angola in 2011 in the wake of civil unrest, Andrade moved to Rhode Island and started playing soccer at a community college.

He didn’t know what to do after a year at the lower division, but then a coach who was childhood friends with Taal, put the two in contact. Taal needed a defender, and Andrade needed a home.

It’s a similar tale to the one of Swedish goalkeeper Jesper Olsson, who like Andrade and Thorfinnson, wouldn’t be at Wesleyan if it wasn’t for someone else.

“We had a guy who played here last year that said he had a goalkeeper for us,” assistant coach Ryan Huber said. “So we got in contact with him, and now he’s here. That’s how it all kind of just works.”

Olsson has started all but one game this season for the Bishops and posted three shutouts. His play against Averett in the first round of the USA South Tournament was one of the reasons Wesleyan advanced with a win in extra time.

So was the effort from Caetano Viegas who set up the game-winning goal.

The Brazilian laid off a ball for Charles Chapin and the latter put it into the back of the net to keep Wesleyan’s hopes of making the Men’s Division III Soccer Championship for the first time since 2008 alive.

A berth into the tournament has been a goal all season long for the Bishops, but even if they come up short, they still have already accomplished one feat.

That’s bringing a flux of players to the states to get an education.

“It’s always been a dream to come to America and play in college,” Thorfinnson said. “I always wanted to see America and experience it, but I never had the chance.”

Thorfinnson has one now, and he’s doing it one deep-fried Oreo at a time.


Information from: Rocky Mount Telegram, https://www.rockymounttelegram.com

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