Try as they might, Dutch players and coaches have found success difficult to come by in Major League Soccer. While still sometimes referred to as a retirement league, where aged European stars can earn one last big payday in their final playing years and dominate on the field with minimal effort, MLS has undoubtedly improved in recent years. Despite this improvement, MLS has and still does provide opportunities for numerous European players to occupy influential roles on MLS clubs that would definitely not be available to them in top European leagues. While these opportunities have proven positive for many European imports, the same cannot be said for Dutch players, or retired Dutch stars looking to establish themselves as managers.

  • by Adam Schenk

As a supporter of MLS club Toronto FC, as well as a longtime supporter of the Dutch national team, some of the shortcomings of Dutch players and coaches in MLS were doubly disappointing. Dutch striker Danny Koevermans, who tallied 136 goals over spells at Sparta Rotterdam, AZ and PSV and earned 4 caps with the national team, joined TFC in 2011 and was expected to play a leading role in helping the young club emerge from mediocrity. While his goal return was decent (17 goals in 30 matches), his injury-marred spell at the club overlapped with the team’s worst period since its inaugural season in 2007. The lasting memory of his TFC career amongst supporters was his public declaration during a lengthy losing streak in 2012 that TFC was currently the worst football team in the world. Coinciding with Koevermans’ time at TFC was Aron Winter’s spell as the club’s manager. Winter brought a wealth of experience, both as a player and as a coach in the Ajax academy, and promised the development of the club into a progressive, free-flowing team in keeping with Dutch footballing tradition. The club’s players, however, were ill-suited to these tactics, and Winter-led TFC was an absolute disaster on the pitch. Winter was sacked midway through only his second season with the team, with the club having won only 7 of 44 league matches during his tenure.

One of the most high-profile Dutch internationals to play in MLS also failed to leave their mark in Toronto. World Cup runner-up Gregory van der Wiel joined the club in 2018 following the club’s first league championship the previous year. While he was certainly approaching the twilight of his career, at only 30 years old van der Wiel was reasonably expected to be a significant contributor to another serious championship run for the club. Instead, van der Wiel was unable to make a noticeable difference on the field for an underperforming roster that failed to even make the playoffs in 2018, and he was dismissed from the club during pre-season training ahead of the 2019 season after a dispute with manager Greg Vanney.

Similar to van der Wiel, Dutch players’ tenures with MLS clubs have typically been quite brief and not particularly distinguished. A number of players have gone to MLS in the hopes of rejuvenating stalled careers but have left fairly quickly without their move having had the desired effect. A few examples help illustrate this point. Siem de Jong moved to FC Cincinnati from Ajax in the hopes of more consistent playing time but made only 15 appearances before returning to the Eredivisie with Heerenveen. The much-traveled Alexander Büttner moved to New England Revolution after his contract expired at Vitesse, but played only 17 games before returning to the Netherlands to play for RKC Waalwijk. Jürgen Locadia’s dismal loan spell at FC Cincinnati from Brighton & Hove Albion produced only 2 goals in 26 appearances. These certainly aren’t the most elite Dutch talents, but given their European experience they likely all expected their time in MLS to be more positive.

Some Dutch football legends have also suffered disastrous spells as managers of MLS clubs. Alongside Winter, notable Dutch internationals Ruud Gullit, Jaap Stam, and the much-maligned Frank de Boer all managed MLS sides, with none lasting longer than 2 seasons in charge. Despite no high-level European playing experience, the most successful Dutch coach in MLS history is undoubtedly Thomas Rongen, who was the inaugural MLS Coach of the Year with the now defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny. While not boasting an illustrious career, Rongen did have both playing and coaching experience at various levels in the United States, and this familiarity undoubtedly helped him succeed where his countrymen subsequently failed.

Of those former stars that have tried their hand at MLS management, de Boer seemingly had the most success, with Atlanta United winning the US domestic cup competition in his first season. This on-field success must, however, be taken with a grain of salt. Surprisingly hired at the conclusion of the 2018 MLS season very shortly after his disastrous time at Crystal Palace, de Boer inherited a club that had just won the MLS championship and boasted one of the league’s best rosters. In a pattern eerily familiar to his brief spell as the Dutch national team coach, Atlanta regressed under de Boer, whose lack of ambition and tactical imagination undid much of Atlanta’s rapid progress into one of the top sides in MLS. Following the pause of de Boer’s second season in charge as a result of Covid-19, MLS restarted with a league-wide tournament in the summer of 2020. Atlanta’s tournament performance underscored the team’s regression under de Boer, as they lost all three of their matches without scoring a goal. How his exits at Crystal Palace and Atlanta made him the leading choice to manage the Dutch men’s national side for Euro 2020 remains a mystery to us all…

Along with a distinct lack of familiarity with North American players and playing styles, a few other factors have likely contributed to Dutch struggles in MLS. First, some Dutch players and managers may have been surprised to find that the general quality of the MLS was higher than they had anticipated. While certainly still well below the level of the top European leagues, the standard of play has improved exponentially since the league’s first season in 1996 and is not the easy payday it once was. Second, the style of play is more physical and less technical than leagues such as the Eredivisie. It’s not that MLS doesn’t produce, intelligent, technically-gifted players, many of whom have gone on to play in Europe’s biggest leagues, but a coach like Winter hoping to implement Total Football with an MLS side may find that the average MLS player’s skillset doesn’t mesh easily with this style of play. Additionally, MLS referees are on average more lenient in letting physical play go than their European counterparts, which can frustrate players or coaches hoping to implement a more fluid, technical style of play.

With all due respect to the players previously mentioned, we have yet to see a top Dutch talent spend the final few years of their playing career in MLS. Along with van der Wiel, the only notable Dutch international to have played in MLS is Nigel de Jong, who spent one year with LA Galaxy and doesn’t exactly typify the prototypical Dutch playing style (has Xabi Alonso managed to get off the floor yet?). Hopefully in coming years we’ll finally have the chance to see what a top Dutch attacking talent might be able to accomplish against MLS opposition. None of the small number of Dutch players currently on MLS rosters are anywhere close to being standout players in the league. Somewhat tellingly, three of these players are goalkeepers (Maarten Paes, Nick Marsman and Kenneth Vermeer), a position that has failed to produce noteworthy Dutch talent over the last decade. Dual Dutch-Canadian citizen Simon Colyn of the Vancouver Whitecaps, who captained Canada at U-17 level, will hopefully continue to develop, but this may in fact result in career progression beyond MLS. Colyn is currently on loan with Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Jong PSV side, with an option for the loan to be made permanent this summer.

As Canada and the United States continue to improve their player development programs it would be wonderful to see a greater influence from the Dutch football tradition, carrying on from the efforts of Johan Cruyff to develop the North American game during his playing years in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Canada has recently launched its own domestic league, which competes at a lower level than MLS but provides a gateway from grassroots clubs to MLS sides for Canadian players. It would be great to see a top Eredivisie side become affiliated with one of these Canadian Premier League sides, as Atlético de Madrid have done with Atlético Ottawa. This would be beneficial for Canadian football development, improve knowledge of the North American game in the Netherlands, and possibly improve the prospects of success for Dutch players and coaches coming that come to MLS in the future. Further opportunities for MLS-based youth players to play and train with top Dutch clubs would also go a long way to improving the relationship between Dutch and North American soccer.

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