Photo by Mary York
It’s no coincidence that two Dutch soccer players who grew up 50 minutes apart ended up playing for a university roughly 5,600 miles from their hometowns.
Senior midfielder Thom Van den Berg, from Arnhem, Netherlands, and senior forward Jeroen Meefout, from Houten, Netherlands, hatched the plan as 18 years old playing FIFA.
“This was the perfect solution,” Van den Berg said. “There was no other place, no other country that could offer such a good combination of both (school and soccer) on a high level.”
The pair created their own player profiles and started selling themselves to any coach who would listen.
“I think what was really great about this is that we did it ourselves,” Van den Berg said. “We sent out so many emails, we had so many skype calls with coaches.”
After receiving a joint recruitment tape from Meefout and Van den Berg, San Diego State men’s soccer head coach Lev Kirshner was interested in bringing both of them to San Diego.
He succeeded in recruiting Van den Berg, but Meefout chose to go to Maryland, after the school made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Maryland is one of the top programs in the country, even as a European you recognize that,” Meefout said.
Meefout started two games and played in 18 as a freshman, ending the season with two goals and one assist.
“I had a good time there,” Meefout said. “I played in almost every game as a freshman, but I didn’t start and you’re young so I decided it was best for me to transfer and I’m happy I did.”
Losing out on Meefout wasn’t initially a total loss for Kirshner, as Meefout convinced fellow Maryland forward Michael Sauers to transfer with him a year later.
Sauers’ family became Meefout’s surrogate family during his freshman year and the pair developed a bond quickly, in part because they were born on the same day, May 19, 1995.
Sauers started 15 of 17 games for the Aztecs in 2016 and finished with three goals and one assist. He also earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention in his lone season at SDSU.
Meefout found success in 2015, starting 13 games and finishing with four goals and three assists.
He also earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention in 2016, finishing with four goals and an assist on Sauers’ game-winning goal against University of California, Berkeley.
“(Meefout) is a versatile striker who’s got size and power, he runs well,” Kirshner said. “He has educated himself in the manner of college soccer and how to find these chances and situations where in the international game he was doing it a different way.”
Meefout has started all 16 games this season and recorded seven goals and three assists.
Van den Berg has been a consistent role player off the bench in his four seasons with the Aztecs and is in the midst of his most successful season.
He recorded one goal and started one game in his first three seasons, but has recorded a goal and two assists with nine starts for the Aztecs this year.
Kirshner said Van den Berg has a knack for continuing passing sequences and possesses a strong long-range shot, although he contributes to the team in ways that don’t show on paper.
“Thom may be one of the funniest players I have had,” Kirshner said. “To have the ability to do that in a second language with the way he does it and it’s so quick and witty. He’s a pleasure to have around the team.
Despite their proximity to each other, Van den Berg and Meefout had different experiences playing soccer growing up.
Van den Berg spent six years in the Vitesse Arnhem youth academy in Arnhem, Netherlands before coming to SDSU and had a pretty normal schedule.
He said he walked to school and got home around 6 p.m. everyday after practice.
Meefout, on the other hand, played for four youth teams and didn’t stay with one team for longer than four years.
Meefout went to the same high school despite transferring to different teams around the Netherlands and said during his longest commute he would wake up at 5:30 a.m. everyday and return home around 7 p.m.
He took the train everywhere he went and traveled by himself as early as 12 years old.
He said the public transportation is a lot safer in the Netherlands and he would do homework or play FIFA on his Playstation Portable to keep occupied during the commute.
Meefout played for the PSV youth academy in 2009-10, but suffered an injury and fell out of rotation with the team.
“Playing for a competitive youth team in the Netherlands is really competitive so if you get injured or they see you as not good enough anymore you have to leave,” he said. “That’s how it goes because every little kid in the Netherlands wants to do this.”
He met Van den Berg at age 14 when they both played in the Vitesse Arnhem youth academy.
Meefout only played there a year, but the pair stayed in touch and would visit each other on holidays.
“Sometimes you just meet someone you have a connection with,” Meefout said. “He’s been one of my best friends since that year.”
Both Van den Berg and Meefout are economics majors.
Van den Berg said this helps when they are traveling for games because they can help each other out with homework.
“It’s been amazing to come here with such a good friend,” he said. “You’re far away from home, but it’s always good to have a friend here. People probably see us on campus a lot together and we have a lot of the same classes.”
Van den Berg said he plans on returning to the Netherlands to get his master’s in economics after he graduates.
Meefout said he would like to play soccer professionally, but if that doesn’t work out he will also return to the Netherlands and get a master’s in economics.
“They both are excellent players and human beings so if they make it in the pros it wouldn’t surprise me,” Kirshner said. “But what I also know is they are going to make it in life.”