Growing up in the Netherlands, soccer is all IU Coach Erwin van Bennekom knew.
“No one growing up was thinking, let’s go play tennis or let me go play field hockey or whatever,” van Bennekom said. “It was always soccer number one, and if you’re not good enough, you go try to find another sport.”
Van Bennekom played briefly growing up as a member of Holland’s youth academy system. He played in the first division of the National Futsal League in Holland from 2002-04 and competed in a variety of semi-professional leagues in the United States from 2006-09.
His coaching career began in 2011 at New Jersey Institute of Technology where he spent three seasons as an assistant coach. He also served as the head coach of several Women’s Premier Soccer League teams from 2010-13.
Van Bennekom spent one season as an assistant at University of Alabama before serving as an associate head coach at Duke University during its best four-year cycle in school history. The Blue Devils accumulated a 68-17-11 record with a 29-6-5 conference mark, in addition to 13-3-2 postseason record that saw two College Cups.
Now as van Bennekom enters his first year as IU women’s soccer head coach, he looks to use his experience and passion for the game to change a program that has struggled to finish above .500 since 2013.
“I think having team organization and structure and having a very concise plan gives you success,” van Bennekom said. “We’ve been working hard on that.”
In a way to prepare his team for the Big Ten schedule, van Bennekom has amped up the difficulty of the nonconference slate, such as the first game against University of North Carolina on Aug. 22 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The Tar Heels are coming off a 21-4-2 season and a National Championship appearance.
“Starting with an easy one,” van Bennekom said, joking. He later said how UNC might be the best team heading into next season.
With the season being a little over a month away, the first-year head coach said he knows he and the team have a lot of work to do. In the meantime, van Bennekom has enjoyed his summer in Bloomington with occasional trips to Lake Monroe with his girlfriend to cruise on pontoon boats.
The Hoosiers haven’t made the Big Ten Tournament since 2016 and NCAA Tournament since 2013. Van Bennekom said he knows what it takes to win, and he hopes to enforce a winning attitude at IU.
“We’re not going to be the best team in the country,” van Bennekom said. “But we can beat the best teams. That’s going to be our motto.”
Even though the players don’t report back to Bloomington until August, van Bennekom has been in touch with certain players, and the common talking point has been the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Van Bennekom isn't ashamed to admit that when he came to the United States from the Netherlands, he wasn’t planning to coach women’s soccer.
But he said he quickly realized the high level at which women are playing soccer, especially in the U.S.
“I think from a technical aspect, it’s competing with the men’s game,” van Bennekom said. “Even better than some of the men’s games.”
The proof? He pointed out the Women’s World Cup.
The United States women’s national soccer team has been on a tear since group stage play started. A 13-0 drumming over Thailand was followed by victories over Chile, Sweden, Spain and the host country France to advance USWNT in the semifinals.
With the U.S. one win away against England from being in the World Cup final, van Bennekom has rooting interest on the other side of the bracket. The Dutch will be competing against Sweden in the other semifinal.
He said he hopes to have a U.S. versus Netherlands final with a Dutch victory.
“We lost in ’78, ’74 and 2010, so we’ve lost three times,” van Bennekom said of the Netherland’s men’s team. “Hopefully the women can win it now.”
Van Bennekom actually had the opportunity to coach players that are both on the U.S. and Netherlands teams.
He coached Dutch starting left back Merel van Dongen when he spent one season at Alabama, and American starting defender Kelley O’ Hara when he was with Sky Blue FC for two years.
“It’s good to see them at the highest stage,” van Bennekom said. “It’s fun watching them.
None of the players on the IU roster share the same hopes for the champion as their coach. In a video women’s soccer put out before the World Cup started, eight players made their predictions for the winner. Five of them picked USA, and none picked the Netherlands.
The U.S. will play England at 3 p.m. Tuesday, and the Netherlands will play Sweden at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The winners will play in the World Cup final 11 a.m. Sunday.
“Those girls are just fighters,” senior defender Allison Jordan said of team USA in the video. “They’re a great team.”
In the U.S. win over France, it set a record for the most-watched Women's World Cup quarterfinal match on U.S. English-language television. Fox drew 6.12 million viewers for Friday's match and peaked at 8.24 million. The game was the most-watched English-language soccer telecast in the country since last year's men's World Cup final.
“The rest of the world has caught up with funding and resources and how they view women’s soccer,” van Bennekom said. “It has increased the whole profile of the game."