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Talking Champions League history with Henry Wingo

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The former Sounders right back is starting regularly at Molde in Norway.

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There is no shortage of great players to have grown up in Washington. The list includes Premier League stalwarts like Marcus Hahnemann and DeAndre Yedlin, international stars like Kasey Keller, and experienced national-teamers like Chris Henderson and Jordan Morris.

For all the region’s soccer pedigree, though, we’ve never produced a player who appeared in UEFA Champions League.

That could soon change. If Henry Wingo’s Molde FK can advance past Hungary’s Ferencvárosi TC — whom they’ll face in the first of two qualifying legs on Wednesday — he’ll soon find himself playing against some of the world’s biggest teams.

“I guess you could say I’m living the dream,” Wingo said during a recent appearance on the Sounder at Heart podcast. “If you go back a year, year and a half ago, I could have said [playing in Champions League] sounded pretty far fetched. But now it’s almost a reality. And so, yeah, living the dream, for sure.”

How Wingo ended up in a relatively small town on Norway’s coast is an interesting one. Around this time last year, Wingo found himself bouncing back and forth between the first team and the Tacoma Defiance. More frustrating than not having a team he could settle into was not even having a position. The Sounders had confidently said at the start of the year that they saw him as a right back, only for him to spend a significant portion of time as a right winger.

In July, he had an opportunity to go on trial with Molde, a Norwegian club that was on its way to winning its fourth-ever first-division crown. Random as that may have seemed, Wingo had a couple ties to Molde and Norway. His brother, Teddy, had actually played in Norway several years prior and Wingo had remained friends with Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who played for the Sounders in 2018 and was enjoying a very successful season with Molde.

Wingo went there with little expectation, but after just a couple days the manager pulled him aside and made it clear they were going to try to get a deal done with the Sounders. After returning to Seattle, the Sounders and Molde eventually reached an agreement on a reported $250,000 transfer fee.

“I just wanted to try and go somewhere where I felt like I could play a bigger role,” Wingo said.

“I definitely thought a lot about it. But at the end of the day, what kind of pushed me to commit to the move was, ‘OK, I have this opportunity. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. And if I don’t do it now, who’s to say I’ll have this opportunity again?’ I didn’t want to be stuck in a situation where I would think to myself, ‘What if I had gone?’”

Wingo’s transition to European soccer wasn’t necessarily easy. He only played a couple games before the end of last season. The start of this season was delayed by the Coronavirus pandemic and when play resumed in June, Wingo still wasn’t starting. But he got his first start in a 4-1 win over Stabaek and had firmly established himself as a regular starter by the time Champions League qualifying began in mid-September.

He now has nine starts across all competitions with a couple of goals and an assist. If Molde advances, it’s not at all far-fetched for him to be matching up with someone like Leo Messi, Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo.

Aside from regular playing time, Wingo also seems to be enjoying the Norwegian lifestyle. Molde play in a stadium that looks like it was plopped down on the set of Lord of the Rings, with the Norwegian Sea just a few feet away, snow-capped mountains in the distance and the close enough to the heart of town that Wingo used to walk to training sessions. Even though most people in town speak “nearly perfect” English, Wingo says he’s even learned some Norwegian. To top it all off, Wingo says Molde has barely been touched by Covid-19 to the degree they’ve even played games with limited numbers of fans.

Living the dream or not, it’s hard imagine things working out much better for Wingo.