Last week was a busy one in the corridors of power at Stade Saputo. And the activity didn’t die down towards its end either, with a Canadian Classique derby match to prepare for at BMO Field.
So it’s perhaps not that surprising Jukka Raitala’s half-century of MLS appearances wasn’t highlighted in too many places before he stepped out to face old enemy, Toronto FC last Saturday night. He becomes the 28th IMFC player to reach the landmark.
The 30-year-old Finnish international gamely partnered Bacary Sagna in a makeshift central defence which restricted Toronto to a single goal for the first 80 mins. Sadly Jukka and the Impact would not mark the occasion with a point however, as Justin Morrow broke the deadlock soon after, to win the game for Toronto.
If ever the Remi Garde era is recalled in terms of consistent player performances, then Raitala’s name will come close to topping the list. Playing all across the back four, despite essentially being a left-back (he’s also played international games for Finland on the ‘wrong’ side, the right), Raitala has been Montreal’s most consistent defender since arriving at the club in March 2018 from Columbus Crew, via LAFC.
But the Finn had a wide and varied career before coming to North America in 2017. One that covers no fewer than 266 league (342 first-class, including cups, play-offs and full internationals) matches to date, in a variety of top-level leagues including the Finnish Veikkausliiga, German Bundesliga, La Liga, Dutch Eredivisie, Danish Superliga and Norwegian Eliteserien. That’s quite a collection of experience, especially when you consider it also includes 46 international caps for Finland, where he’s been part of the set-up since 2009.
Raitala also represented his country at u17, u19 and u21 levels, and in fact had that rare experience for a Finn, of playing in an international finals tournament, the 2009 UEFA u21 Championship in Sweden.
His country lost all three games but were not disgraced in the face of stiff opposition; England (1-2) Germany (0-2) and Spain (0-2). The group could scarcely have been any more difficult with the eventual tournament winners and runners-up, finishing 1st and 2nd. But it did provide Raitala an opportunity to test himself against the likes of James Milner, Theo Walcott, Manuel Neuer, Sami Kheidra, Mesut Ozil, Cesar Azpilicueta and also none other than Bojan Krkic, now of course a team-mate in Montreal!
Further recognition was to arrive that same year, when he was named Finland u21 Player of the Year.
It was around this time when the young Raitala, plying his trade with HJK (or Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi, to provide its full name) was attracting interest from some of Europe’s top clubs; AEK Athens, Ajax, Bayer Leverkusen, Newcastle United to name just four.
He eventually joined Bundesliga club, Hoffenheim, firstly on loan, but then on a four year deal, after his first season.
It’s ten years since he obtained a winners’ medal, so this year’s Canadian Championship provides the perfect opportunity to scupper that barren run. The Finnish Cup was won in 2008, and in 2009 he was a member of the HJK title winning side.
Jukka also played in another national cup final in 2015, in Denmark, when his FC Vestjaelland side went down 2-3 in extra time to overwhelming favourites FC Copenhagen, who included Danish internationals Thomas Delaney and Christian Poulsen.
Not noted for his goalscoring exploits, Raitala has managed three in his career; an 84th minute equalizer, after he had been on the pitch only 4 mins, for Heerenveen against Go Ahead Eagles Deventer (Dutch Eredivisie), a 5th minute opener for Sogndahl in a 1-3 defeat at Norway’s oldest club, Odd Grenland (now called simply Odds BK), and for the Impact a second-half equalizer at Real Salt Lake in 2017, which was voted MLS Goal of the Week.
We’d all settle for Montreal Impact to become the only club he has scored more than once for, especially if that goal comes in the 2019 Canadian Championship final, and breaks the player’s barren ten-year spell without a winners’ medal.