Yale soccer coach chases one more goal in Sweden

Editor's note: This is the first installment of Graham Hays' series detailing the Yale women's soccer team's season. Check back regularly for updates.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Sweden seems like a strange summer destination for someone chasing the spirit of Roger Milla, the former Cameroonian soccer star who at 38 years old captured the world's imagination by leading the small African nation to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 1990.

Then again, maybe a land where daylight lingers long into the evening hours during the months following the summer solstice is the perfect place for Yale women's soccer coach Rudy Meredith to chase one more moment in the sun as a player.

"I can play golf at midnight over there, because of the sunlight," joked Meredith, 38, sitting in his office on the second floor of Yale's historic Ray Tompkins House a few weeks before departing for Sweden. "My tee time is usually like 10 p.m. I have dinner with the family and tee off at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m."

The family in question is that of Meredith's wife Eva Bergsten Meredith, a native of Sweden whose relatives still reside in Nyhammar, a small town west of Stockholm. And while the late tee times offered by a Scandinavian summer are a bonus, it's soccer that draws Meredith across the Atlantic Ocean just a month before Yale opens the season at home against Duke on Sept. 1.

With Ivy League rules prohibiting Meredith from conducting any formal practices for the Bulldogs until Aug. 24, the coach is set to temporarily trade in his whistle for cleats as he attempts to play for a fourth-division team in Nyhammar.

It's a dream that sprang to life not too long after meeting his future wife, who was then an assistant soccer coach at Hartford (she's now the head coach at Wesleyan University).

"After we met, I went to Sweden with her and I just realized as a soccer person, I was robbed of my soccer experience growing up in America," the Maryland native said. "I mean, I watched soccer, I went to soccer games, it was great. I saw great players from each age group, and I still wanted to play. And in Europe, you have first division down to like seventh division. … And it doesn't matter where you live in the country, they have it all over the place."

A Division II All-American at Southern Connecticut State University, where he helped the team win a national title in 1990, Meredith all but gave up playing competitive soccer when he joined the staff at Yale in 1992. Three years later, he became the youngest head coach in the history of the program.

"We knew we had to build a program; we were basically in the bottom of the league, so we knew we had some work to do," Meredith said of the task facing him and Fritz Rodriguez, a teammate of Meredith's at Southern Connecticut who remains his top assistant. "I was definitely intimidated; I was young, being African-American -- I was just really intimidated by Yale. I got over that intimidation factor and I saw the team get better right away, and I said, 'We could do this.' But obviously it took full attention, that's why I stopped playing and just totally focused on coaching. I still wanted to play; I just didn't have time. My focus was on building the program."

Now entering his 12th year in charge in New Haven, Meredith has done more than right a listing ship. Despite running a program without the benefit of athletic scholarships, Meredith has transformed the Bulldogs into a national contender. The team reached the NCAA Tournament three of the last four years and last year advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time while spending much of the season ranked in the national polls.

With his coaching credentials firmly established, Meredith found himself feeling the urge to get back on the field himself when he traveled with his wife to Sweden a few years ago. Seeing her husband's itch to play, she encouraged him to go check out the local team, then in the sixth division. Both team and coach-turned-player liked what they saw of each other, but delayed paperwork between American and Swedish soccer federations prevented him from officially joining the team until a later visit.

Unfortunately, Meredith's Swedish debut quickly turned into something of a nightmare.

"The game that I got hurt in, I had to play with the reserve team because I hadn't been there," Meredith said. "The coach said you play well with the reserve team, you're starting in the next game. I scored two goals, and at halftime the coach said you'll be starting with the A team on Sunday. But at the end of the game, I tore my ACL. So I never had a chance to play with the A team."

The knee repaired and rehabbed, Meredith is ready to give it one more shot this summer. But in the time since his initial visit, the local team has been climbing the ladder of Swedish soccer, moving from the sixth division to the fourth. While still far from the large stadiums of the top league -- Meredith doesn't draw any kind of salary for his play -- the team's good fortune offers another challenge to its lone American.

"Now it's getting harder, because of the knee and just getting older and stuff like that," Meredith said. "I've got guys on the team that I could be their father. It's going to be harder, but I like the challenge. It motivates me to try and get back in shape."

And the experience itself is something of a reward. Coming from a country where soccer occupies a back-burner existence -- even Meredith admits having preferred basketball as a kid -- the atmosphere of even small-time European soccer is intoxicating.

"Like here, every little town has a basketball court; every little town there has a soccer field," Meredith said. "Everybody comes to the games. You can be driving in the middle of nowhere, and there's a soccer field. Not only a soccer field, but a locker room and a little clubhouse. After the game, you can come in and take a shower. We don't have that here. It's nothing big and fancy; it's just simple, but it's effective."

While Meredith still looks entirely capable of running up and down a field for 90 minutes, he describes a rejuvenation that sounds almost like the scene in "Field of Dreams," where after leaving an elderly Doc Graham in Minnesota and driving toward a baseball diamond that springs out of an Iowa cornfield, Ray Kinsella and Terence Mann pick up a younger version of "Moonlight" Graham still intent on picking up one hit against major-league pitching.

For Meredith, the weeks in Sweden are a chance to leave behind the life of a coach and rediscover the roots of his passion for the sport.

"I actually recharge my battery, because now I'm not coaching, I'm just playing," Meredith said. "When I come back, I click into the coaching mode, and now I'm refreshed. You know, in anything, even if you love it, you can still get burned out. I don't ever want that to happen to me, because I love doing it so much. So I always take the time to just play."

Of course, forwards will be forwards, and Meredith carries with him the same extra motivation that drives every goal scorer from Thierry Henry and Ronaldo on down.

"I just want to score a goal, because I feel that I still can," Meredith said. "I've always been a goal scorer, so that's always been my motivation. I still think I can score goals just as good as most people. I'm not fancy with the ball, I'm not Mr. Fitness guy; I can just score goals."

Meredith is the same age as Milla was when Milla scored four goals in Italy in 1990, but the coach's doubters appear to begin with those who are closest to the creaking and groaning escaping from his joints.

"And I don't think that my wife thinks that I can do it, so I kind of want to prove to her that I can still do this and I can help her little town do better," Meredith added with a mischievous glint in his eye.

Whatever happens this year, Meredith's time in Sweden already has left its mark on the coach. He tells of a 44-year-old woman playing in Sweden's top women's league who challenged him to be on the field for her to watch this season. And of a young kid in Nyhammar who, after playing in a pick-up game with Meredith and his nephews, rode 15 miles on his bike to check on the coach after hearing about his knee injury.

But for Meredith the soccer player, one dream remains unfulfilled. Quite literally, one goal remains.

"If I do what I need to do right now, I just need to get it out of my system," Meredith said. "I want this so bad, and I've got to get it out of my system. Once I get it out of my system, then I think I'll be OK, and I can hang it up and not play anymore.

"But it's burning. I go out and play a game and I still can score goals."

And what better place to score one more than Sweden, where for a few months each year, the sun refuses to set on the soccer fields that dot the landscape.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.