ENSCHEDE, Netherlands - Chants of U-S-A echoed through Enschede Stadium Tuesday as the United States battled to a nil-nil draw in its second game of the World Youth Championships. How wonderful, I thought - with its attractive style of play and pressing attack, the United States had gained control of the Dutch crowd.
Then I took a moment and looked at who the Americans were playing: Germany.
OK, now I see one big reason why the Dutch fans were on our side.
An important thing to remember about the host country - when given a choice, the Dutch will ALWAYS root against the Germans. This is without exception.
To understand why the Dutch crowd was so supportive of the U.S., one needs to understand the three reasons the Dutch are mad at the Germans. (Incidentally - all of them stem back to a little incident called "World War II")
Basically, the Germans did three things to the Netherlands that still cause hard feelings.
They occupied them.
They took their bikes and melted them down to make tanks.
They never apologized for making tanks out of their bikes.
All joking aside, the support from the home crowd has been tremendous. Of the four teams in Group D, the United States has enjoyed the majority of support from the neutral fans.
"At the game last night we had the local fans on our side. I didn't notice it too much until the end of the first half," said Eddie Gaven. "We started getting some chances and they all started to chant (U-S-A)."
"I actually looked up in the crowd and they were doing the wave - and they were all chanting for us. It helped us - there was so much energy in the stadium. I think we fed off that."
With the crowd urging the United States, a goal seemed inevitable. Eddie Gaven almost had one off a beautiful set up from Freddy Adu, but his initial shot was saved. Scrambling for the rebound, the referee swallowed his whistle when Gaven was taken down from behind in the box. ("Taken down" may be too light a term - "absolutely butchered" may fit better.)
Enschede is located a mere 15 kilometers away from the German border, so some of the players expected a hostile crowd. However, with the Americans being spurred on by the crowd of its adopted home city, the atmosphere was almost that of a home game.
"I think the crowd in Enschede has been absolutely amazing with us," said goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, who has yet to allow a goal this tournament. "(The local fans) have cheered all the time and it looks like they really enjoy our game. I think we are their favorites here."
The support from the city has not gone unreciprocated - for its part, Enschede has won over many of the U.S. players. The team hotel is just five minutes walk from the train station and is adjacent to the city's quaint shopping district.
"It's not so big that you get lost in it and there are definitely some U.S. places. There's a Burger King for after the game," Gaven said.
But in order to stay in Enschede for the second round the United State must win the group. After two go-arounds, the Group D standings favor the Americans, who with four points are tied for the group lead with Germany. However, Germany faces Argentina while the United States gets Egypt, giving the Stars and Stripes the inside track at coming out on top of the group of death.
The United States will have three days to prepare for Egypt, which is at the bottom of the group after 2-0 losses to Germany and Argentina. But despite the lack of success, the young Pharaohs gave a challenge in both games before eventually fading in the second half. Egypt has a couple of good weapons, including star number 10 Mahmoud Abdelrazek. It should be a hotly contested game, as Egypt must win by a large margin to have any chance of advancing and the United States must win to have another chance to play in front of its surrogate home crowd.
"We definitely want to stay as long as possible here. It was pretty amazing to have all these Dutch people chanting U-S-A," said Westberg. "It doesn't happen that often, especially in Europe. A little recognition for U.S. Soccer is always welcome."
Other notes from the game
Regarding fan support: it's completely surprising to see how many players' parents and families have come to the Netherlands. They are out in force - dressing up, leading the cheers, and yelling at the referee when their son gets fouled. It's definitely an impressive sight and lends a nostalgic, youth match feel to the tournament.
The entire starting lineup for Germany plays in the Bundesliga. But according to U.S. coach Sigi Schmid, despite the big club names attached to some of the German players, many of them are about third-level talent-wise - a level of competition he compares to elite U.S. college teams.
The Germans are big. Really big. They didn't have a player smaller than 1.80 meter (about 5-foot-11). Many of the U.S. players, like Freddy Adu and his substitute Lee Nguyen, had absolutely no chance to win a challenge against them. And like a boxer who works the body, the size of the German side took a toll in the end - in the last 20 minutes, the United States had nothing left in the tank.
German star Michael Delura (Schalke 04) ran through, around, and through the vast majority of the United States team in the latter stages of the second half.
Defender Jonathan Spector (Manchester United) didn't play today, still suffering from the after effects of a hip/thigh contusion suffered against Argentina. But in his stead, Nathan Sturgis (Clemson) was strong and Patrick Ianni (UCLA) controlled the air space.
Around the tourney
The Swiss U-20 team looked extremely strong in Emmen on Sunday night. They came back from a 1-0 halftime deficit to defeat a strong Korean team, 2-1. Arsenal defender Philippe Senderos looks about five years older than his competition and the strike tandem of Goran Antic and Johan Volanthen can create opportunities from nothing. Along with Spain, the Netherlands, and the three teams from group D, the Swiss are one of the early favorites in this tournament.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter has really put a few clicks on the old odometer. On Friday night he was in Kerkrade, then on to Doetinchem Saturday night and Emmen on Sunday night. After crossing the border into Germany for the start of the Confederations Cup, he was back in Enschede for Tuesday night's matches.
Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com.