Upon retirement, professional athletes are in the unenviable position of forging a new path after spending the majority of their lives completely committed a singular mission. What should be done after the playing career ends? Some return to school or go into business, hoping their drive and determination will bear fruit in the corporate word. Others parlay their insider perspective into media careers with varying degrees of success. A select few are lucky enough to stay in the game, climbing the coaching ladder until possibly surpassing the heights of their playing careers. After spending nineteen years in some of the world’s most prestigious leagues and Major League Soccer, former New York Red Bulls midfielder Teemu Tainio has committed to the third path.
Readers may remember the Finnish utility man from his time at Red Bull Arena in 2011 and 2012. Tainio was a member of the club’s Nordic revolution, spearheaded by sporting director Erik Soler and manager Hans Backe. He arrived after a brief stint at Dutch giants Ajax after a long career in France with Auxerre and England with Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland, and Birmingham City. Despite his pedigree, he was on trial before signing; although, that may have been a mere formality with the usual perfunctory fitness tests in the midst of an underwhelming stint in the Netherlands.
Over his two seasons in Harrison, Tainio made 47 appearances across all competitions. Speaking anecdotally, his class was apparent every time he stepped on the field. He locked down opposing attackers, controlled the area in front of the back line, and provided critical link-up play. No one knows how far the Red Bulls would have gone in the 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs had Tainio not pulled up lame with a hamstring injury 16 minutes into the match against the Galaxy.
Unfortunately, his 2012 season was largely derailed by a long-term knee injury, resulting in five months of rehabilitation and a failure to regain his earlier form. The ensuing off-season – perhaps the most ruthless culling in club history following a regime change – saw Tainio’s contract option not picked up. As with most things involving the Red Bulls, there was a glimpse of true quality and a hope for glory, but all that remains is an unfinished symphony.
Following his two-year tenure in New York, Tainio spent a couple of seasons with HJK Helsinki, winning the league twice and claiming the 2014 Finnish Cup. He hung up his boots in 2014, leaving behind a long and successful career that included 64 caps for the Finnish national team.
After his playing career ended, Tainio worked as a scout for Tottenham, a television analyst for ISTV, and as an assistant at Talenttiklubi Klubi 04 (HJK’s reserve side) and FC Haka. In 2019, he took over as manager of the latter, his first professional club at which he spent the 1996 and 1997 seasons before moving to France.
Haka – based in the southern industrial town of Valkeakosken – won the Veikkausliiga nine times and the Finnish Cup 12 times. Recently, the club fell into a financial rut and spent seven years in the second division following a reduction in support from the local forestry industry. However, under Tainio’s management, the situation has turned around. Haka stormed through the 2019 Ykkönen (second division) season, easily finishing atop the table and earning promotion with 24 wins, two draws, and one loss.
Moving up from the second division after almost a decade is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Tainio has his work cut out for him, but he gets to learn on the job and rebuild a club about which he is very passionate. “A few years ago when I came here I was really surprised to see that people seemed to have forgotten Haka a little bit, because when I played here I knew how much the club means to the city,” he told YLE. “That was the one thing I wanted to change.”
Now the club is back in the top division with the obvious goal of avoiding relegation and eventually returning to European competition. On-field success has re-energized local support and generated enthusiasm. Haka sold a greatly increased 2,600 season tickets. However, COVID-19 restrictions will limit entry to a mere 1,500 fans at the 3,516-seat Tehtaan kenttä (“Factory Field”). Sporting economics are already difficult outside of the big four, but Haka is considered a relative minnow in its own league, with a quarter of the spending budget of other Finnish clubs. COVID may result in reduced spending and make the hill that much harder to climb.
The Finnish league, with a spring-to-fall schedule, recently resumed play after an incredibly long layoff. At the end of June, Haka made a run to the Finnish Cup semifinals before losing to HJK, 3-2. Tainio’s side has experienced an expected slow start in its return to the Veikkausliiga, with a 1-1 draw against FC Honka and a 3-1 loss to HJK. For those readers into tactical breakdowns, writer Juuso Kokken provides a critical look at Tainio’s formation, strategy, roster building, and possible shortcomings as a manager.
There is one major perk of the Haka job. Like any proud football father, he gets to coach his son, Maximus, who recently joined the club. The 19-year-old was a member of the Tottenham academy and is a regular fixture in the Finland youth national team setup.
While he is at the beginning of his second act, perhaps Tainio’s coaching career will lead him back to Major League Soccer. “As a place I fell in love with New York the most,” the 40-year-old said in a recent interview with Lempäälän-Vesilahden Sanomat. “So I’ve been thinking that sometimes it would still be great to live in New York.”
You’re welcome back any time, Teemu. Continue to grow and develop as a manager, win a few titles with Haka, and I’ll pick you up at the airport in a few years when you are ready to lead the New York Red Bulls to the MLS Cup. Or come tomorrow, it’s your call.