Down a dirt road in Eindhoven, Holland, on a soccer field surrounded by tall pines and bathed in white by floodlights, two dozen teenage boys race from drill to drill. Their breath puffs up in the brisk, clear, pine-scented air. The boys are members of the top two youth teams of PSV Eindhoven, one of the finest soccer organizations in the world. PSV, whose first-division team is a perennial force in the Dutch professional league and in international competition, also sponsors a youth-development program that includes 10 teams for boys ranging in age from eight to 18.
At 5'6" and 145 pounds, Nick Theslof is the smallest player on the field and, at 16, among the youngest. He runs lightly on bowlegs and size 6 feet, in a bouncy, swaybacked style that could almost pass for prancing. He is clever with the ball, he sees the field keenly, and he drills his crosses like bullets. He rifles a right-footed shot into the goal and charges back downfield, screaming into the night.
Soccer is as beloved in Holland as tulips, and scoring is something to be celebrated. Nick learned that, as he has many other things, the hard way. His blasè reaction to one of his first goals on Dutch sod earned him 50 push-ups. That happened last August when, after a tryout with PSV, Nick accepted its offer of three meals a day, 20 guilders a week (about $11) and an occasional visit to a nude beach. In accepting, he left his folks, a younger brother, two dogs, his high school and a good life in suburban Columbus, Ohio. As the youngest U.S. kid ever lured across the Atlantic by a world-class soccer program, Nick was a pioneer; in the beginning, his first and last names might as well have been "The" and "American." He was a striker in a strange land.
Still, says Nick, the decision to move was an obvious one. "I was going nowhere back in the States," he says. "When I came here and saw kids my age playing as well, I knew I had to come."
He is in a cafè in downtown Eindhoven, an industrial city largely rebuilt after World War II, a place where the well-kept, twisting streets are as tangled to a kid from Columbus as are their double vowel-laced names. Sitting amid a sea of upturned noses and a haze of strong Dutch cigarettes, Nick speaks with confidence and contentment; he has an earnest assuredness that makes him seem twice his age. "When you play here, it's not good enough to be good enough," he says. "You have to get better."
Since taking up residence in a boardinghouse that's six time zones from home, Nick has been advancing toward PSV's top amateur level, A-1, which is made up mostly of 18-year-olds. He clearly is not tilting at windmills; he is progressing at a pace that could land him on PSV's first-division team in a few years—a stunning achievement for a U.S. collegiate star, let alone an American in his teens. "You could say what he's doing is unprecedented," says Fred Schmalz, who coaches at the University of Evansville (Ind.) and for the U.S. Olympic Development Program. "Lots of older kids with lots of accolades have had the opportunity to go abroad and have come back in two months, flat on their faces. He's blossoming. That tells me a lot about how much he wants it."
And how far he has to go to get it. For all its strides, U.S. soccer remains hamstrung in relation to that of the rest of the world. Nations such as the Netherlands have pro teams that nurture promising players before their adolescence; the U.S. has no pro leagues that are anywhere near as well established. Says Roy Rees, coach of the U.S. under-17 team, "it can be worthwhile leaving home. You get better competition day in and day out, and that produces better talent."
PSV (Philips Sport Vereniging) is sponsored by the Philips electronics multinational corporation, which was founded in Eindhoven 101 years ago, and operates something like a major league baseball team, hoping to cultivate one or two prospects every couple of years from its lower ranks for its first-division team. Huub Stevens, age 38, the head of PSV's youth-development effort, thinks The American may be one of these future pros. Stevens's opinion is made manifest in the little things he does—his arranging for PSV to pay for Nick's airfare to Columbus last Christmas, his blocking Nick from joining a U.S. team for a recent game in England. In his playing days Stevens was a bruising defenseman, and Nick first earned his demanding Dutch master's respect by arriving in Eindhoven and playing without complaint for a month while nursing a severe groin pull. "The mentality is more important than the talents he had, believe me," Stevens says. "The kids in Holland, they are lazy, they are thinking—frrroo!—I don't need to do that to become professional. In the States, everyone knows you must fight. When Nicky is no more a fighter, he's gone, believe me."
Nick had to fight against his family's sporting tradition to emerge as a soccer prodigy. His grandmother, Vivi Anne Hultèn, won a bronze medal in figure skating for Sweden at the 1936 Winter Olympics, and her husband, Gene Theslof, was Sonja Henie's professional skating partner for years. Nick's dad, Gene, performed for Holiday on Ice, and his mom, Luanne, was in the rival Ice Capades. His younger brother, Tyler, 14, is a hotshot hockey goalie. But ever since Nick was old enough to bang a ball around the basement, he was captivated by soccer, not skating. He would practice for hours on end, and at every level Nick was the finest player on the field. "I first saw him play against an older team at a regional camp when he was 13," says Bob Bukari, Nick's former regional coach. "He took a free kick, 40 yards out, that was just a blur. He's got power in his leg, he's technically clean, and he's just a joy to watch."
Nick was an age-group All-America when PSV's first-division reserve team came to Ohio last summer for exhibitions against the Major Soccer League's Cleveland Crunch, an indoor pro team. Nick's club-team coach, Ron Wigg, a former pro in England and the U.S., had Stevens take a look at the kid. Stevens watched Nick play one game and immediately invited him to train in Eindhoven for two weeks. After four days of working with Nick in Holland, Stevens inserted him in the second half of a match among PSV's reserve players—who, by the way, had crushed the Crunch in Columbus. Despite being marked by a 26-year-old, Nick assisted on one goal and banged a shot off the post. Stevens asked Nick if he wanted to relocate. Nick's decision had his parents' blessing. "We've been a family of high achievers," Gene says. "You train hard to go where you need to go. Nick had the skill and the motivation, and then there came the opportunity."
When Nick arrived in Eindhoven, he realized that he had to learn Dutch, and quickly. Stevens banned Nick's teammates from speaking to him in English during play or practice, in part to test The American's willingness to change and grow. "They talk so fast it sounds like one big word," says Nick. " 'Time' in Dutch [tijd] sounds like the English word 'tight.' When the other boys would say 'tijd?' to me, at first I thought someone was close to me, and I'd get rid of the ball."
Nick found that the language of his sport was different in Holland too. The Dutch style stresses crisp, short passes. "In America, you might work on goal scoring and corner kicks," Nick says. "Not here. In practice it's all heading and crossing." Push-ups and sit-ups are meted out for poor execution, and Nick is doing fewer of them as time passes. "He is very eager to learn, and he learns very quickly," says Klaas van Baalen, Nick's A-2 coach. "It is typical American: I will learn the soccer, I will go to the top."
Nick plays two or three matches a week, and competition has taken him throughout the Netherlands and to Germany, Belgium and France. He has the respect of his teammates, although there were some misunderstandings at the beginning. Nick was puzzled when during a training session last autumn, some of the players went out of their way to rough him up. It seems he had taken what was considered more than his fair share of french fries at that day's meal. Now he gets on well with his peers. They help him with his Dutch in exchange for aid with their English. Nick is particularly useful when the boys want to rap.
Nick is the lone foreigner in the internaat, a three-story house in the leafy suburb of Geldrop that he shares with 10 of his teammates. Ernst and Elly Meyer run the place, taking particular care of Nick on Sundays, when the other boys make trips home. They fry up some frikandel and relax around the tube—Philips brand, of course.
The school he attends, St. Joris college, is a half-hour bike ride away. Nick somehow earned a 3.65 on his first report card, a remarkable achievement considering he took physics in Dutch and he was a teenager in a land that has no drinking age and few hangups` about sex. On Saturday nights Nick heads to a downtown strip of discos and neon bier signs that would make Fort Lauderdale proud. For Nick, a budding soccer star from exotic America, the problem is restraint. "When I came to training late one day, PSV already knew I had a girlfriend," he says. "It's incredible how they know so much."
Nick expects that PSV will eventually offer him a pro contract, something around $20,000 a year. He'll probably sign, even though that would jeopardize his U.S. college eligibility and would keep him away from Columbus even longer. "A lot of American kids say they love soccer, but they don't," Nick says. "When I go to bed at 10 o'clock, I think about my mom watching her soap opera and my dad at his computer. But I have to fulfill my dream, and I can do it here. This is where I start."