Foreign players thriving as key parts of teams
Published: Monday, October 15, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 15, 2012 18:10
When senior Frida Nilsson, a native of Sweden, was looking at colleges, her parents suggested she attend a university in the United States. Nilsson, an avid golfer in Sweden, said she wanted to find a college that had first-rate academics and a good golf program.
She ultimately opted for the University of Idaho before transferring to Delaware after two years. Nilsson now competes with Delaware’s golf team and is one of more than two dozen student-athletes at the university who originate from other nations, such as Spain, China and New Zealand.
Men’s soccer head coach Ian Hennessy, who grew up in Ireland and played soccer at Seton Hall University, said international student-athletes tend to fit in well at Delaware because it is somewhat of a melting pot.
“The university has over 4,000 students, graduate students, visiting scholars and teachers internationally, so we really kind of fit in and add to the diversity in a positive way,” Hennessy said.
Of the 25 players on the men’s soccer team, 10 are from other countries, making it the most diverse of the university’s 21 teams.
Hennessy attributed the team’s large international presence to both his background and Delaware’s historic lack of success in the sport.
“The kids that we want are the same kids that Duke, UCLA and Stanford want,” he said. “And we have to be honest, we’re probably not going to get those guys.”
The field hockey team also has several international players. Three of the team’s players have come from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, countries traditionally considered to excel at the sport.
Head coach Rolf van de Kerkhof, who is from the Netherlands, said the union of foreign and local players can help both sides.
“There’s a benefit that they can bring to us, and at the same time we have benefits with the American players that we can share with the foreigners,” he said. “And so, indirectly, if they can work together we can create a synergy effect that will allow us to be better than we would be without each other.”
Van de Kerkhof said field hockey players from other nations are often more technically sound and have more tactical awareness, while American players tend to be more physically skilled.
Freshman midfielder Michaela Patzner, who played for the Under-18 Junior National team in Germany, said the biggest transition for her on the field was the increase in difficulty with regard to physicality. She also said the American game was not quite as advanced in terms of tactics and technique.
Patzner chose to study abroad and received a number of offers from schools hoping to have her play field hockey with them. She chose Delaware, she said, because she wanted to help build a program.
“There were also a lot of good schools, but I wanted to play at a school where a new program starts,” Patzner said. “I can be a part of that. Not playing on a team which is already established but building something.”
However, foreign student-athletes are not immune to the challenges associated with transitioning to a new culture with different customs.
Van de Kerkhof said the hardest part of transitioning to the United States is generally adapting to the lifestyle.
“If you compare where I’m from in the Netherlands with America, America’s 24 hours,” he said. “It never stops, it never stops.”
Van de Kerkhof and Hennessy both cited differences in food as a challenge for many foreign student-athletes. Van de Kerkhof also said since English is now commonly spoken around the world, the language barrier is not a huge problem.
Nilsson said she was initially optimistic when coming to the United States.
“First of all, I went to the University of Idaho for two years to play golf there,” she said. “I wanted to combine golf and school, so that’s why I went there, and then, it wasn’t really what I expected.”
She said after she left Idaho, she was contacted by Delaware’s golf coach, Patty Post, who recruited her for the university. Nilsson said it gave her an opportunity to continue to play golf as well as study.
She said there were a number of things she had to get used to initially in the United States, as simply interacting with people was different than in her homeland. Nilsson also said Europeans often travel more to other countries than Americans and are more knowledgeable about other nations.
Nilsson, who spends about four months of the year visiting family in Sweden, said she would like to stay in America after college.
Van de Kerkhof and Hennessy both said they often hear of foreign players from contacts they have made over the years.
“The question is, ‘Are they a good fit culturally, academically?’” Hennessy said.
He said his goal is ultimately to increase the Delaware soccer program’s profile so he can count on recruiting more elite American players. Hennessy also said he is pleased with the mix of players on the team currently.
“It’s a human spirit,” he said. “It’s a UD spirit, it’s not international spirit or American spirit.”