Sport and study in the USA - 'Life Changing Experience’ - Head to Head

Head to Head: Thom vs Lars

Tom Derks - Mercyhurst UKingsTalent 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 Thom 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?

The first weeks I had to find out how everything works and where to find everything. Now I got used to living in the States and everything is fine. The soccer team is really one big family, which makes being away from home a lot easier. I’m getting to know the guys on the field and off the field. I’m feeling right at home here.


How are you enjoying life in the US?

Life is really good here. The temperature is still 25 degrees Celsius every day. The people are friendly and there is always something to do on campus. We have 40 guys in our team, so every day you get to hang out with different guys from the team. I’m sharing a room with Pichi, a Mexican graduate student.
You can’t compare living on campus in the US with living in a dorm in The Netherlands. Here the entire school lives in two streets, very close to each other. When you live in a dorm in The Netherlands you are often together with just your own roommates, here the company changes every day. The campus life suits me very well. I do have more homework than I had in The Netherlands. Every week I have to write papers and essays, which costs me more time because it has to be in English.

Soccer here is totally different from The Netherlands. There is a lot of focus on fitness and not a lot of focus on the tactical aspect of the game. That takes a lot of getting used to. In the field you have less time to act than in The Netherlands and there is also the rule that the coaches can substitute as much as they want, making sure that there are always 100% fit players on the field. I wish there was more room for talk about the tactical aspect of the game so everyone would know what was expected from them. That would make things a lot easier, but the season has already started and there is no more time for this.


How do you look back on last month?

It has been a very busy month, I’ve been busy every day with school, soccer and everything around it. Pre-season is over and from now on the full focus is on the our soccer games. The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) games are going well. We won 3 and lost 1. We have to get good results if we want to make it to the nationals, we’ve had a bad start but things are improving.


Is soccer popular in the US?

Soccer is less of a big sport than American Football. That sport is very big here, with full stands on every match. When we play there are somewhere between 100 and 200 people coming to watch us. People say that if we qualify for the play-offs there will be a lot more supporters. When we have the time we watch other sports games as well, and support the other teams.


Of course we follow your achievements. How do you feel it’s going?

We’ve had a very good pre-season with a win and a tie against Division 1 universities. That built our confidence. After that we had two difficult opponents and we lost both games. We didn’t play well in those games. After this we continued to play bad, winning only 1 out of five games. The coach continued to change formation and players, there was little continuity and I sometimes had the feeling we that we were running without any idea behind it. The last two games went better and we won twice in a row. I’m expecting to continue this good run because we played well these games. I think we can save a lot of power and energy if we can improve tactically. Our strongest aspect is building up our game from the back. Our weakness is that we give away goals too easily. Our last game has been our first clean sheet of the season.

I’m satisfied about my personal achievements. Up until now I have been in the starting team every time. I’ve played in every position in the offense of our team. I do have some trouble really finding my way, but I’m confident that I will get there and will improve my game. So far I’ve scored 1 goal and given 2 assists but I know this has to improve too. In every game I have my share of schots on goal and crosses.

Our coach is a nice guy but concerning soccer I’ve had better coaches. Every match he changes formation at least three times. 4-3-3, 4-1-3-2 or even 4-2-4. Also his communication is mainly about what to do in possession and rarely about what to do if we lose possession. This is a little different from a coach like Jan Lauers, with whom everyone always knew exactly what was expected from them.


This Sunday there is a special match scheduled. Mercyhurst University will receive Urbana University. Playing against your friend for the first time. Is this going to be a special game for you?

Yes it is very cool to meet Lars this Sunday. It’s also going to be nice to speak Dutch again for a little while. We have been playing together at Wittenhorst for four years. As far as I know this is going to be the first time that we play against each other, which makes it extra fun. I was able to view some Urbana games online so I know they have a dangerous offensive line and a great goalkeeper. I have a lot of contact with Lars by app.  We talk about the games we play and how soccer is here is different from soccer in The Netherlands.

Urbana plays really well and it’s going to a tough match. I already warned my teammates that they have a great striker.


What do you expect from the game Sunday?

Urbana is having a good run. I saw they won again today. We were trying to find our way the last few games, but our results have improved recently. We are not in the position to say ‘we are going to win it today’. The difference between teams is very close and every team always gives 100%. This will be the case in the Urbana match. I think it will be a close match. We have what it takes to win it, and I’m sure they will feel the same way. Normally I would like to keep a clean sheet but if we beat them 2-1 and Lars scores a goal that’s ok with me too!


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?

Teamfoto Mercyhurst UThe last few years Mercyhurst has always competed for the title. With 3 wins and one loss our results are reasonable so far. I think we should be able to compete for the title. We want to qualify for the nationals play-offs, but we realize that we have to win everything now.


In the meantime school has also started. Is it tough to combine school with a full sports program?

School is not really difficult but it is a lot of work. Every week there are papers, essays and assignments for grades. I have two online courses and two regular courses. I have classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:15 am until 10:20 am and also Wednesdays from 5:30 pm until 7:30 pm. So I don’t have a lot of classroom hours. But to keep up with the online courses I have to watch a video for two hours. That’s not a lot of fun to be honest. Every day from 2:30u pm until 4 pm there is practice. During the day I usually make my homework and in the evenings I usually hang out with teammates.

When we have away games we get exemption and can turn in our assignments later. Last week we got to travel for 7 hours to East-Stroudsburg, to spend the night there and play a game the next day. The hotel was very good. For any pair of players we had a two-person room with two two-person beds. Food and drinks before and after the games are all taken care off. There is also enough time to catch up to school affairs when you have away games.


What’s the atmosphere in the team like?

The atmosphere is very good. We hang out a lot together, and it doesn’t matter if you are a freshman or a graduate student. Of course things are sometimes said on the field but after the match we can all laugh about it. Everyone always gives 100%, so no-one can be blamed.


Being a European, are you approached differently?

There are a lot of players from outside the US here but everybody is approached equally. But, for example, everybody is wondering what Amsterdam is like. I certainly feel some pressure to perform, but we all have to perform. The season is short so we have to be on top of our game quickly. I know I can do better than I’ve showed to far, so I’m also putting the pressure on myself. I would like to make the difference more often than I have done so far. There is no talk about scholarships inside the squad.


Next to studying and playing soccer, do you have any time for other fun things?

On weeknights we regularly watch a movie with some of the guys. When we play on Saturday and we win, there is some celebrating. When we lose the mood is still pretty good in the group. I still didn’t got to see the town itself but I don’t really mind.


Do you still keep up with the Dutch (amateur) soccer?

I still check the results and the goalscorers in Dutch amateur soccer. I’m also still in contact with the boys from Sarto and Wittenhorst. On Sundaynight I watch all the Dutch soccer game summaries. We also watch the English soccer, live on tv, together in the auditorium. Then the teams will be cheered on by 30 guys.


Do you still watch the European Champions League games?

Yes, of course! Too bad I have to make due with summaries because the times the games are played we have practice ourself.


Do you still realize that this is a very special experience for just a lucky few?

I’m really super excited to have this experience. 1 year is awesome, of course, but honestly I should have done this 4 years earlier, so that I would have been able to do this for 5 years. I’m trying to take the maximum out of this year. The away games are very fun to experience. The 7 hours in the bus are over before you know it and you get to see a lot of the country. Outside of the great experience you also get to know another mentality. I will always remember this year, I’m sure!


Any final thoughts:)?

The teams here love to have Dutch players . I can recommend this to everyone, not only the soccer players.


KingsTalent wishes Thom all the best for the match against Urbana this Sunday.
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