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Duluth-Sweden soccer exchange helps players experience international game

When Kelsey Johnson first was asked if she would coach a team as part of the Duluth Vaxjo Soccer Exchange, it was an easy sell. After all, Johnson previously had taken part in the Swedish exchange program as a player, and she loved it. Now all sh...

Kevin Danielson and Kelsey Johnson
Kevin Danielson and Kelsey Johnson are coaching in the Duluth Vaxjo Soccer Exchange program, which plays tournaments in Duluth and Sweden in alternating years. (David Samson / dsamson@forumcomm.com)

When Kelsey Johnson first was asked if she would coach a team as part of the Duluth Vaxjo Soccer Exchange, it was an easy sell.

After all, Johnson previously had taken part in the Swedish exchange program as a player, and she loved it. Now all she needed was a co-coach, so she tried to enlist her twin sister, Samantha Johnson ("we do everything together,"), but had no luck.

Samantha had grad school, so Kelsey enlisted her boyfriend, Kevin Danielson, another DVSE alum, to help her coach the U.S. U-15 girls team at the Sister City Soccer Cup on Friday through Sunday at Stebner Soccer Complex in Hermantown.

"I absolutely love coaching this team," Kelsey Johnson said.

"It's pretty fun to be part of the program again," added Danielson, a former Hermantown soccer defenseman who will be a junior at Wisconsin-Superior. "As soon as I found out I'd have a chance to give back to this program, I hopped right on board. I've got great memories of taking part in this."

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This is the 14th cultural exchange between boys and girls soccer players from the Twin Ports and their peers from Vaxjo, Duluth's sister city in Sweden. The idea came from Katie DeGrio, part of a local group of students who welcomed Swedes to Duluth for three weeks in May 1997.

Later that summer she mentioned to her father, Ron DeGrio, that it would be nice to take teams over to play soccer in Sweden, and in 1999, Swedes from the Vaxjo area invited Duluth to create a soccer exchange between the two communities. That summer, Duluth sent three girls teams with players ranging from 14-17 years.

"The soccer tournament is at the center of the exchange program," said Dan Couture, chair of the DVSE. "But the program is also a cultural exchange where we hope players and families may gain some understanding of how kids live in another country."

Players and coaches are asked to make two-year commitments as the host site alternates each year between Duluth and Vaxjo. This year the program has 124 participants between the two countries. Each Duluth player is matched with a Swedish player, staying at each other's home during the two-week exchange.

Kelsey Johnson is a Duluth Denfeld graduate who went on to play soccer at UWS before graduating in May with a degree in criminal justice. Her twin sister also took part in the exchange program, making the Johnson household busy when they hosted two Swedes.

"I absolutely fell in love with it," Kelsey Johnson said. "It's fun interacting with people from a different culture. Playing against people from Sweden was crazy. It was so much fun. It was a whole different level. We didn't know what to expect, but they turned out to be phenomenal soccer players. We didn't come out winning, but it was more about the experience than anything else, listening to them talking Swedish to each other on the field."

English is becoming more international with younger people, making conversing with the players easier than with their parents.

This year's tournament features 16 teams, divided between U-15 and U-16 boys and girls, including some local teams not taking part in the exchange. They play a round-robin format, where each team plays each other once.

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Danielson said the Swedish teams often come out on top.

"The Swedes take their soccer serious," Danielson said. "It's all fun and games when we're out on the beach or wherever, but when they're playing soccer, they definitely like to win. It's a totally different style of play over there. It might take them a little bit to get accustomed to here, with the weather and the food, but once they do, they definitely do whatever they can to win."

Related Topics: HERMANTOWN
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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