KingsTalent is keeping a close eye on the developments and experiences of Thom Derks and Lars Blenckers this season in the US. We will post blogs, interviews and other news related to them on a regular basis. One month ago they both left to study and play soccer in the US. This Sunday they will meet in a thriller-match in Pennsylvania. With Lars we look back on last month and look ahead to coming Sunday.
It has been a month since your departure from The Netherlands. Are you all settled in the States?
Yes, but that happened rather quickly. Meanwhile my roommate and I got all the things we wanted in our room and at school everything is business as usual. On the field and in the contact with teammates everything goes well and I really get to know them. Of course you sometimes miss your family and friends in The Netherlands, but everyone here makes you feel right at home and I’m never bored. I talk to my friends on WhatsApp and I also often talk with my parents, brother and sister.
I didn’t have any problems adapting to life here in the US. Of course you have to adapt to the language, but that’s going well also. Sometimes I notice that some things are different from The Netherlands, but the culture and way of life are quite similar to The Netherlands. The soccer play is different. Here the play focuses on strength and stamina, but the opponents we have played were also technically strong. It did take me two games to get used to the way of play, but I like the approach to the game here. You also see a lot of English players in college teams so automatically the game is quite similar to English soccer.
How are you enjoying life in the US?
I live on campus and I’m here every day for school and practices. Sometimes we eat off campus or pick up supplies at Walmart, but in general you really live at school. I like it just fine, because I already know almost everybody here and everybody here at school automatically has some sort of connection. The good thing is I live at walking distance of 5 minutes from the training complex and 3 minutes from the restaurant, so everything is close by. It’s a big difference with living in a dorm in The Netherlands. We mostly eat together with the team at one table and if you are bored there is always someone who wants to hang out. You are always surrounded by people and that’s a big difference from living at home or in a dorm in The Netherlands. Here you are in constant contact with friends and people at school, so socially that’s great.
The student life is great! Because I’m a graduate student I don’t have a lot of classroom hours, I only have to be in class on Tuesday nights. In comparison to the undergraduates our life is pretty easy and we have a lot of time to do other things, like going to the gym, playing Fifa, driving around in the car, etc. Grad school is not that hard and I don’t have any trouble getting good grades.
How do you look back on last month?
This month has gone by very fast. Meanwhile we have played 5 official games and we have performed well. I’m glad with the environment here and I haven’t been bored once in the time that I’m here. Last month was tough and intense with 2 games a week en a practice nearly every day, but it’s great to experience.
Is soccer popular in the US?
Contrary to Europe, soccer is not the number 1 sport in the US. It’s all about American Football and this becomes clear when you take a look at the number of people coming to watch a game. The footballteam here gets around 2500 spectators (which is not much compared to other colleges) and we (the soccer team) get around 100 spectators. Many of these spectators are our fellow students. Sports are very important among the students and we always try to go see each others games. Also all the athletes know each other and know what sports they play. In away games we always travel together with the women soccer team. This creates a connection in which both teams support each other.
And still you notice the popularity of soccer. In my spare time I coach two teams in Springfield and I notice that the kids and their parents are really fanatical and eager to learn. On tv, luckily, we get to follow the Premier League, Bundesliga and the Champions League.
Of course we follow your achievements. How do you feel it’s going?
In the beginning, during the friendlies, I was a bit sceptical about our way of play. But we are currently in a winning streak with 3 wins in a row. Before this we tied and lost to the #2 team in the country Charleston. We switched from a 4-3-3 to some sort of 3-5-2 system and this fits the players we have perfectly. I think we have a good playing team and we always try to find the combination, so we can put the pressure on our opponents. There is certainly some sort of winner mentality in our squad, which makes us hard to beat. In the beginning we had some trouble scoring, and there is certainly room for improvement on this point. When you take a look at the number of shots we get on target and the number of goals we score we need to improve on that. Despite of this, we managed to score twice in 20 minutes with 10 men last Sunday.
When you look at my personal achievements I believe I’m playing a reasonable season so far. I needed some time to adapt to the play here, but I notice that I’m improving. Last Sunday I scored my first goal and also gave an assist. I play center forward and of course goals are expected. With 1 goal out of 5 games my average is not that well but I’m certain I can improve on this in the coming games. I played in the starting team every game so far and played the full 90 minutes twice. Here there are no rules for substitutions so a coach can substitute as much as he wants. I’ve been substituted a few times for 10 minutes only to be put back in again later. Me and the coach are getting along fine and I can tell he sees me as an important player. As a center forward I am mainly a target for passing and allowing one of our two technical offensive midfielders to come in and score goals. At Wittenhorst I was always used to playing 4-3-3 with wingers, but I think this system suits us better, with the players we have.
This Sunday there is a special match scheduled. You will play an away game against Mercyhurst University. Playing against your friend for the first time. Is this going to be a special game for you?
Of course I’ve been looking forward to this game for quite some time. I’ve never played against Thom before and I would have preferred him to play with us rather than against us. I played with Thom in the U19 team at Wittenhorst and after that 3 years in the first senior team. Also we played together in tournaments with friends. This is the first time ever I’m playing against him and I’m very curious how this will turn out. Thom and I have a lot of contact, mainly by WhatsApp, about how the teams are doing but we didn’t discuss the coming game just yet. This game is very special for us but also very important to the team. If we win the coming two games who could get ranked, something no team at our university has ever accomplished.
What do you expect from the game Sunday?
I expect that we can be a tough opponent for Mercyhurst and I’m convinced that we can take one or maybe three points there. It’s hard to predict, but we expect no less than a tie en hopefully we can take the three points home in overtime. In any case I expect this to be an exciting match. Our coach himself played many years for Mercyhurst University and he is already talking about how important this game is, and not only for him.
What do you expect from this season? Do you think the team has what it takes to reach to play-offs or maybe the championship?
Realistically it’s hard to become champion when you have a team like Charleston in your conference. This team has a lot of players who played at top soccer clubs in Brazil, England and Germany. After our win against Notre Dame (tipped as #2 in our Conference) I believe we have to achieve finishing 2nd this year. 2nd place may give us qualification for the nationals. A playoff ticket for the tournament (#1 to 4) has to be a clear goal for us and I expect us to realize it. Last year Urbana finished 5th and didn’t get a playoff ticket, so we have to do better than that. Urbana University never reached the playoffs for nationals so if we come in 2nd this year that would be a huge accomplishment. We also want to become ranked as a team, because no team from Urbana has ever realized this. So we want to make history this year!
In the mean time school has also started. Is it though to combine school with a full sports program?
Not for me, my graduate program is not as tough because this is usually combined with work or an internship. I see a lot of teammates hitting the books in between games and practices, but as for me I can make the deadlines for assignments easily.
This is our weekly schedule. On Mondays we often have a recovery practice in the afternoon because of our game on Sunday. The Monday I use to sleep in, eat, recover and go to the gym. For me this is a quiet day. On Tuesdays I always practice for myself, because the evening classes coincide with our evening practice. On Tuesday evenings I have three hours of classes. When we have an away game on Thursday we usually leave on the Wednesday afternoon, with usually 4 to 5 hours of traveling. I also use the Wednesday mornings to complete assignments for the Wednesday deadlines. When we travel to an away game we stay in a hotel in the neighborhood of the game. In the hotel we have a team meeting in the evening to discuss tactics and if necessary review video footage. Thursday mornings we have breakfast with the entire team and travel to the stadium to play the game. After the game we eat somewhere and travel back to Urbana University. Food and drinks are all taken care of by the staff. On Friday there is recovery practice again and we prepare for the game on Sunday. In between we watch games of other teams and sometimes we go out, as long as it’s not within 48 hours before a game. A week passes very fast.
What’s the atmosphere in the team like?
The atmosphere is very good and I’m getting along with everyone. Sometimes things are said on the field but after the game we don’t talk about that. We try to involve everyone in the activities and I think everyone feels good in the team.
Being a European, are you approached differently?
Our team is 75% European so they don’t approach me any different then they do with other players. The European players do receive more scholarships. It’s was announced that the offensive line gets the greater part of the budget so goals are to be expected. I don’t feel pressure to perform, because you just know that things are expected from you. Of course you understand that the school is paying for tuition, food and meals and with this comes a certain responsibility to perform.
Next to studying and playing soccer, do you have any time for other fun things?
With the older guys we go out and with the whole team we do activities like visit Columbus Crew soccer matches, movie nights, fifa tournaments, concerts etc. We can also borrow a car from teammates to drive around. Besides that I coach two junior soccer teams in Springfield once a week.
Do you still keep up with the Dutch (amateur) soccer?
I watch the Eredivisie and try to watch the Ajax games on my Fox account. Besides that I check Indewandelgangen every Sunday to see if Wittenhorst won and I check scores in other divisions. A lot of my friends are also former teammates so I’m still in contact with them. Also I’m still in my old team’s WhatsApp group so I’m still pretty connected.
Do you still watch the European Champions League games?
We watch a lot of games in the afternoon because of the time difference and we try to watch summaries of the rest of the matches.
Do you still realize that this is a very special experience for just a lucky few?
Last Saturday I sat in the bus to West Virginia and I had a moment to think ‘wow, it’s really cool to play soccer and study here and experience this’. I’m really glad I took this step and be given the opportunity to experience all this.
Any final thoughts :)?
It’s suits me very well here. So well that I’m trying to find a way to stay here a little longer. We have to check this with the school but I’m confident that we can make it work (I have to be cleared for play by the NCAA). This will mean that it will perhaps be possible to stay an extra semester for study and soccer next year. I’m hoping we can make it work.