Kelvin Leerdam Occidental Park Sounders Monthly 2019-05-06
Mike Fiechtner

Total Football: How Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam’s Dutch upbringing has him thriving in Seattle

This is a feature in Issue 21 of Sounders Monthly, Sounders FC’s original magazine. They are available for free at The NINETY, Soccer Celebration, GuestLink Services locations and Membership Central as well as the Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and South gates.


Kelvin Leerdam keeps countless notes. They sit on countless pages of countless notebooks. He’s been recording everything he’s learned from soccer since he was 17. Now 28 and in his 12th professional season, the Seattle Sounders defender continues to write things down.

One of the Netherlands’ U-19 coaches told Leerdam to record everything he learned. The coach was impressed with Leerdam’s mental acumen and envisioned him, even before he made his professional debut at 18, as a coach later in life. He told Leerdam that the more he wrote down — exercises he learned, exercises he liked, things coaches said and did that he liked and didn’t — the more he’d already have at his disposal if and when the time came. It’s also served a therapeutic purpose, to clear his mind and reset his mentality.


Leerdam poses in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood | All photos by Mike Fiechtner

“[Writing has] helped me accept things quicker, let things go quicker from what coaches say or do, not reacting to some things,” said Leerdam. “The writing has helped me to let things go.”

Leerdam is still as mild-mannered as they come. He was born in Suriname, a small country of Dutch influence in northeast South America, nestled between French Guiana to the east, Guyana to the west and Brazil to the south. When he was 10, he and his family moved to Utrecht, the Netherlands, a city roughly 30 miles from Amsterdam. The transition was natural enough. The only major difference he noticed was winter.

“I said to my mom, ‘The trees have no leaves,’” Leerdam said with a laugh. “That was the first thing I saw. I remember that.”

Playing soccer eased the transition as well. Making friends was easy once everybody saw he could play. In tradition-rich Holland, soccer is an identity. Players grow up in what’s endearingly referred to as Dutch Total Football, a philosophy made famous by the Netherlands national team in the 1970s that’s founded upon the belief that any player on the pitch can take over the role of any other player. It’s fluid, effective and beautiful when executed properly.

 

“I know how people see Dutch players,” said Leerdam. “I know people, especially in Europe, say they like Dutch players because tactically they are very well developed. It’s attractive the way Dutch teams like to play. It’s natural.

“I like to play offensive soccer,” he continued. “I like it more than just waiting, I want to take initiative. That’s how I grew up. That’s all the coaches I’ve had in the Netherlands. They want to dominate the ball, they want to dominate the game. That’s how we like to play, and we want the opponent to do what we want and to play how we want them to play. It’s a natural way of thinking about the game. You want to let the offense enjoy and enjoy the pitch yourself.”

Prior to his move to Seattle in summer 2017, Leerdam was a living testament to this approach. He said he hasn’t played right fullback as long as people think he has. It’s a somewhat recent move for Leerdam, who has played every position except goalkeeper and striker in his professional career.

“I had a coach,” Leerdam said, “[Peter Bosz], he’s now the coach of Bayer Leverkusen. He said to me, ‘Soccer-wise, you’re a smart player. I believe you can play in every position. If I need you somewhere, you can play because I think you can adjust.’”

Leerdam’s approach to the game has been on display so far in 2019. Through just nine matches, he already has three goals, tied for second on the Sounders and first in MLS for all defenders. When asked if he and left back Brad Smith comprise arguably the best fullback duo in Major League Soccer, Leerdam took it a step further.

“I think [Smith and I] have to believe we are the best because I believe we have the best team,” Leerdam said. “You have to trust yourself, believe in yourself. Not to be arrogant, but as a team and as players individually, we have to believe we are the best. If we go like that in the game, we can beat everybody. Not to be arrogant, but confident. The way we play, the formation we play, it benefits me and Brad a lot. It makes us play to our strengths and makes us look better.”

Despite the successes he’s had so far, Leerdam continues to push himself to improve. One, perhaps ironic, way is by making mistakes. In this third professional season, Feyenoord Manager Ronald Koeman urged Leerdam to play freely and allow himself the opportunity to commit errors. Few things have changed Leerdam’s game more.

 

“Mistakes make you stronger, make you better,” said Leerdam. “At the end of your career, you’ll be your best self, the best player you could have been. Even if the fans are whistling or booing, go and make mistakes because that’s what’s going to make you better.

“Most of the time, people are afraid to make mistakes,” he added. “It’s normal, it’s natural. You will learn. When you make it one time, you will not do it again. When you experience bad things in life, it can only make you stronger. It’s the same thing in football.”

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