UTRECHT, THE NETHERLANDS — John O'Brien looks as if he should be sunbathing and surfing. But right now, the young Los Angeles native is playing soccer before a Dutch crowd of 25,000 as a member of the first division FC Utrecht team.
Soccer means as much as tulips in the Netherlands. Although the country is home to just 15 million people, its national team has captured the European championship and made last summer's World Cup semifinals. And since the United States doesn't play in the same league, some ambitious American youngsters are crossing the Atlantic in search of soccer fame - even entering the Dutch school system in order to have a crack at top-flight soccer training.
"You get the best soccer education here," Mr. O'Brien explains. "You get better competition and you learn more here."
For Americans, the attraction is the Netherlands' tough, meritocratic system, which produces a disproportionate number of top-ranked players. Dutch children start playing competitively as early as age 6. Just four years later, professional teams may invite them to try out for a youth-development program.
Over the years, a talented few move up the ladder. The ultimate goal is a professional team.
But the Dutch don't produce only great Dutch players. Brazilian great Ronaldo - perhaps the world's most famous player - came to the Netherlands as a teenager - and kids from all over the globe come here hoping to replicate that success.
Daniel Levin, of Rockville, Md., is one 15-year-old with such high hopes. "I was at national training camp and one of the coaches saw me play," Daniel remembers. "The coach said, 'you've got talent, I wonder if you want to go to Holland. I knew how good the Dutch training was and said yes immediately."
The Utrecht team has found a local family to host young Daniel in the Netherlands. The club picks up the cost for his schooling and lodging. Daniel practices soccer every afternoon for about two hours. Both at school and on the field, he must speak Dutch. So why not go to England?
"The British don't teach the soccer techniques and strategy as well as the Dutch," Daniel answers. "They do much more kick and run. Here they teach you passing and movement."
The Dutch national team is renowned for its short passes and superior teamwork, which is a top priority. "This is probably the best place in the world to read the game and play the game as a team and play it quickly, musically, fluidly, as opposed to just individual effort," says Edward Oklan, whose son, Avi, also played soccer in the Netherlands.
"There really isn't anything in the States which is comparable to this Dutch program, where there is a focus on youth development [for] becoming professional players," Mr. Oklan says. "The only thing we have are colleges, and by then it's too late to develop as a professional." He has sent his child this year to a new academy in Florida sponsored by Adidas, but still favors the Dutch system.
Not surprisingly, the transition for many American kids is difficult. After his tryout in Utrecht, Avi returned to soccer school in Florida, though he is considering another Dutch adventure. "You come to the Netherlands and you play at a different level," he says. "They play a lot quicker here."
True success stories are rare. A few Americans have tried to break directly into the big leagues. But only a handful have distinguished themselves, and almost all returned to the US when Major League Soccer was launched in 1996.
For the young Americans, the goal is not just to learn soccer. It is also to experience another culture. "Even if I don't make it on the field, I'll have learned a lot off the field," Daniel says.
O'Brien arrived in Amsterdam at age 17. He showed immediate talent when he took up soccer in California and played on the Western Region Under-14 team. During the summer, he was invited to the Olympic development camp. When the camp ended, his coach asked him if he wanted to go to the Netherlands.
In 1994, O'Brien flew to the Netherlands for a tryout. After the first day, he almost returned to the US, devastated. "The game was so much more physical than in America," he recalls. But he didn't give up. Ajax coach Gerald van der Lem was impressed. "John showed grit," he says.
In the Netherlands, O'Brien continued his studies in a Dutch high school. Duke University in Durham, N.C., offered him a soccer scholarship, but then Ajax offered him a pro contract for about $20,000. He accepted.
For the first year after high school, he continued to study at a Dutch business school. But when he joined Utrecht this year, he no longer had time. He now is a full-time professional, earning $200,000 a year. He would make far less per year in the American MLS league.
O'Brien is a regular starter on Utrecht and has done well. He has also been named as a reserve for the American national team and hopes to play for the US in the next World Cup.
"I'm delighted with my choice," he says. "It's given me the chance of becoming a great soccer player." It's also given him an international - if unconventional - education.