U.S. U-15 boys national team coach Dave van den Bergh grew up playing in Ajax Amsterdam’s youth program, a teammate of future Dutch national team stars Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf.
After Ajax, Van den Bergh played for Spain’s Rayo Vallecano and Dutch club Utrecht before moving to the USA in 2007.
He appeared in more than 100 MLS games for Kansas City, the Red Bulls and FC Dallas before retiring in 2009. He also, at age 18, played in the 1995 U-20 World Cup, and he made two appearances for the Dutch national team in 2004.
Upon retiring, van den Bergh served as U-20 and U-15 assistant national team coach before being named U-15 head coach in February 2016.
Dave van den Bergh (Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer)
SOCCER AMERICA: What was Ajax Amsterdam, historically one of the world’s most successful youth programs, like?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: At the time, I had no idea how it was all set up. … They have a whole lot of scouts in the city of Amsterdam, which at 800,000 is not a very big city. I think they have like 60 scouts scouring the fields for youth players. I was invited at age 10 to play a game against the current group of Ajax players. I did well enough and got accepted into the program, and stayed for there for 11 years.
In my day, there were only 16 players per team, per age group, who were invited to play for Ajax. Now there are 18 players per team. So, the competition was fierce. If they could find a better player in a certain radius around Amsterdam, he’d be in and you’d be out. It was tough in the sense that it was pretty cut-throat, but I never experienced it that way. It was all about having fun and trying to do your best.
At age 10, van den Bergh (bottom row, far right) played on an Ajax team with future Dutch World Cup players Patrick Kluivert (top row, far right, next to keeper), Clarence Seedorf (to left of Kluivert) and Denny Landzaat (front row, third from left).
SA: The players who arrive at the youth national team program will have already played years of grassroots soccer. What do you hope coaching is like for them at the youngest ages?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: I just hope that the coaches let these players be themselves. I hope that they’re not trying to over-coach them. I think especially at the youngest ages it’s imperative that these boys have fun and get touches on the ball and not be so caught up on having to win the game.
They need to be allowed to discover what they’re good at.
These boys need to have liberty, especially if they’re at more forward positions … I see a lot of these coaches back at home saying, “It has to be two-touch, it has to be two-touch” — and as a consequence we don’t have a whole lot of Arjen Robbens anymore.
I’m hoping the coaches let the kids fail nine times, because the 10th time they will succeed and that will boost their confidence so much they’ll keep on doing it.
We have plenty of time at the older ages to instill some tactics.
SA: What does U.S. Soccer expect from you as U-15 head coach?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: It’s my job to map out the most talented players in the country, cast a wide net over this age group … to make sure that I don’t miss any players in this birth-year cycle.
For now, I feel very confident. We’ve had over 135 guys in so far. I feel confident that we’ve seen the majority of the talented players in this age group, and now we’re tracking them. And there will always be new players who break into the scene.
The other thing is to see whether there are kids who are ready to be pushed up to the next level. So, if he’s going to be better off playing at U-16 at this point or U-17 than it’s my job to let the coach know this player is ready -- and we’ve had a bunch of players make the jump up.
U.S. U-15 midfielder Josh Atencio (Photo courtesy of Concacaf)
Under Van den Bergh, the U-15s have taken trips to Argentina, Croatia, Italy and Slovenia, and finished runner-up to Mexico at the Concacaf U-15 Championship after defeating Panama, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago and Canada. They also posted wins over Uruguay (in Argentina), Portugal, England and Russia (while winning the Torneo Delle Nazioni in Italy).
SA: How do you feel about the current U-15s progress?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: It’s also important for these boys to compete. That’s why we take these trips. That’s why we go to Argentina, where it’s tough to play top South American teams. That’s why we go to Europe, where it’s difficult to play some really good European countries. We won tournaments in Argentina and Italy. We had four really good foreign trips, all very different.
SA: One of the stars of the team is Giovanni Reyna. Might he feel extra pressure, being the son of U.S. Hall of Famer Claudio Reyna?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: He was asked by a reporter about that and said, “I don’t even think about it that way. I just think of him as Dad.” I think that’s the perfect response. And I treat him just like any other player on the team. I think he is level-headed enough to not let that bother him or let that pressure him and he certainly has not shown any signs of being under pressure because of his last name. He’s handled it very well.
SA: Do you think coaching young players now requires a different approach from how you were coached as a youth player?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: There are similarities and differences. I try and coach the way I liked to be coached. Sometimes you’re forced to make a tough decision here and there, but I still think it has to be fun for these boys, because otherwise it’s going to be a drag and they’ll get soccer-ed out. That’s the last thing we want. We want to keep it fresh. We want to keep it fun.
There is a generational difference. This is a way more visual generation, so they learn a little bit differently. They see things a little bit differently. You have to deal with some other things. They’re all on social media. They have little computers on their phone. So there’s a little bit of a different approach, but nothing out of ordinary on the soccer field. Soccer hasn’t changed much.
Of course, the concepts change and you’re always looking at things, but I’ve been very lucky because the Federation has a adopted a playing style that is very close to how I grew up. That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s been a good fit.
[U.S. Youth Soccer Technical Director] Tab Ramos has adapted the 4-3-3 and he’s kind of followed the line of [his predecessor Claudio Reyna], who started that process. And the really cool part about it is that we’re pretty much streamlined all through the age groups. It’s really good for these boys because we’re working so closely together with all the national team coaches.
SA: Do you have any coaching role models?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: You pick up a little from almost every coach — not every coach. There have been a couple where I learned how not to do things, which is valuable as well, I guess. …
I do want to mention Gerard van der Lem and Co Adriaanse, who were my coaches growing up in Holland. Those guys were very influential on me as a youth player and they influence the way I coach right now.
And here in MLS, Bruce Arena has been highly influential on me in his man management and squad management. I was a little bit older at that point [with the Red Bulls] and I wasn’t just focused on my own game but could see the whole picture better, so I could appreciate that part of coaching more.
A lot of coaches had influence on me and I tried to grab the best out of all of them. It’s been a pretty cool mix between the Dutch and the Spanish and an American style, and I’ve tried adopt it and make it my own.
I’m still learning now. I see and hear things when we get together with all the national team coaches, which is really cool. We work really hard to make sure we get the same exercises going. Omid Namazi or Brad Friedel or Tab Ramos or John Hackworth or Clint Peay — all those guys are really good coaches, so I’m still learning from them. You’re never done learning.
SA: How do you feel about the state of youth soccer in America?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: Looking back 10 years, the change has been so dramatic since the inception of the Development Academy.
I was there in 2010, seven years ago [as assistant of the U-20 national team], and those kids did not grow up all the way though with the Development Academy. Right now, we see these kids come through at a young age being far better prepared for something like those European trips we’re taking and they are far better prepared to play a team like Portugal, England or Russia, which are really hard opponents.
They are so well-equipped, which is a testament to the Development Academy and the coaches at the clubs that have adopted the philosophy. They’re the guys who developed these players.
SA: So you think the progress is there to take American soccer to a higher level?
DAVE VAN DEN BERGH: I think it’s been very good. I think we need to stay the course. We need to stay consistent. Within the national team program, we have been very consistent with our message to the kids in our philosophy, which has helped tremendously, culminating with in the U-20s winning the Concacaf Championship and hopefully the U-17s doing well at the upcoming World Cup for them.
We’ve worked very hard to get to a consistent level of coaching, a consistent level of messaging, and playing style, coaching style, and practices that we share.
I think right now it’s just a matter of being patient and having all those kids coming through be ready for the first team.
If you look down the line, there is some really, really interesting and exciting talent coming through.