ENSCHEDE, Netherlands - The Netherlands is a soccer mad country. Despite a population of under 17 million, the Dutch stand firm as an international footballing power, boasting a roster with such household names as Makaay, Van Nistelrooy, Davids, Stam, Van der Sar and many more.
In the 1970s, "Total Football" took the world by storm and carried the Dutch to the World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978.
So how does such a small country produce such a great and storied soccer tradition? One reason: they start early here. The love of soccer is ingrained in the national consciousness and as a result, the Dutch children can't get enough soccer.
Accordingly, the United States, with its status as the darlings of Group D, have earned themselves quite a youthful entourage in this quaint Dutch city of Enschede.
To wit, the United States U-20 team welcomed some unexpected visitors upon their arrival in Enschede. On June 6 a group of about seven young Dutch boys had shown up at the U.S. team's training ground and asked the team if they could stick around. The Americans obliged and since then, the group of seven have been honorary members of Team USA and the team's unofficial posse.
Ranging in age from about 7- to 12-years old, the children have enlivened the American training sessions. One entertains the players with his juggling and anothe walks around practice draped in an American flag.
"Back home in the U.S., there are maybe one or two kids," said Danny Szetala. "Over here, it seems like the whole town comes just to watch training."
The crowd continues to grow by the day - at Friday's training session, almost 50 people were on hand the watch the U.S. go through its paces. Cameras from NOS, the TV station that is broadcasting the games in the Netherlands, have been following the team as well.
Just-turned-16 superstar Freddy Adu has been particularly welcoming to the children. With his ever-energetic personality, Freddy chats with the children afterwards and graciously gives autographs and poses for photos.
The children, for their part, have made an impression on the U.S. delegation with some thoughtful gifts.
When midfielder Will John (Chicago Fire) turned 20 last Monday, the Dutch kids welcomed him with a birthday basket of spek and drop, traditional Dutch candies. John also received a bottle of champagne from NOS. However, being only 20, John will give the bottle to his mother for her birthday instead.
The resourceful children learned the birthdays of the American players by looking it up on the internet. Patrick Ianni (June 15) received a package of stroopwafels (syrup cakes) and Szetala (June 17) also received sweets.
A local Dutch TV station caught the scent of this story and sent TV cameras to the US training.
The integration of the Dutch children shows how well the U.S. team has fit into Enschede. The players speak the praises of the Dutch fans, who supported them vocally when the United States played Germany Tuesday.
Egypt coming up
With Egypt coming up on Saturday afternoon, the United States is not taking the last place team lightly. The United States' position in the next round isn't a certainty. They need to pick up at least a point against Egypt Saturday to assure themselves a spot in the knockout phase.
To a man, the Egyptians are a skillful team. However, based on game tapes, the United States believes they will break down if pressured enough. The Young Pharaohs have a tendency to lose focus, as was seen in their twin 2-0 losses to Argentina and Germany earlier this tournament. In both games, Egypt looked in contention, only to lose their composure later in the game.
The Americans beat Egypt 1-0 at the Suwon Youth Tournament in South Korea a few months ago. It was a hard-fought game and the U.S. left with respect for Egypt's energy and work-rate.
A win coupled with a loss or tie by Germany against Argentina would guarantee them first place in the group and the right to stay in Enschede. However, a loss and some other factors could leave the United States out of the second round.
Coach Sigi Schmid is likely to sit Eddie Gaven and possibly Marvell Wynne, as both have picked up yellow cards and would miss a game with another card. With the disciplinary situation and injuries to Jonathan Spector and Chad Barrett, who picked up a knock to the back of the neck in practice Friday, expect some new faces to take the field for the United States against Egypt.
Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org