THE NETHERLANDS' LATEST TROPHY PUSH
Small but studiously efficient at producing smart, technical players and seductive tactical concepts, the Netherlands are the last remaining member of the game's traditional aristocracy yet to claim a World Cup trophy.
They did reach the third championship final in their illustrious history at South Africa 2010, however, warding off the uniquely Dutch penchant for self-destructiveness well enough to give them real hope of another deep run in Brazil. For a generation of stars now approaching or over 30, this is very likely the last dance on the big stage.
WORLD CUP PROSPECTS
Dutch World Cup prospects are somewhere in Rome, writhing on the ground in agony. Because without Kevin Strootman, they probably don't have much of a shot at the title.
Strootman is perhaps the most German player the Netherlands has ever produced, a do-everything master of efficiency in central midfield whose best attribute is how he selflessly makes everyone around him better. That applies as much to the defense as it does to the attack, by the way - and ever since Phillip Cocu hung 'em up there has been a shortage of guys in Orange willing (or able) to do both jobs. Strootman went down with a torn ACL in March and won't return to game action until this autumn.
His absence means Louis Van Gaal will probably rebuild central midfield responsibilities around Toronto-born Jonathan De Guzman, with protection at d-mid from ax murderer Nigel De Jong and creative license given, once again, to Wesley Sneijder.
GROUP B SCHEDULE
STARS TO WATCH
Robin van Persie, F, Manchester United (pictured left): A world superstar, RVP was not only deadly in front of net with 11 goals in this qualification cycle, but he's also been durable, featuring in nine of Die Oranje's 10 matches and earning the captain's armband after struggling for consistent fitness earlier in his career. Those fitness woes cropped up this season for his club, but that should actually have kept his legs fresher for this summer's tournament.
Arjen Robben, M, Bayern Munich: The latest and greatest of the Dutch flying winger archetype, Robben is quick, cerebral and utterly ruthless. He slices and dices opposing defenders – and aggravates millions of fans with his gamesmanship. He will fly down the right side and do everything in his power to cut back inside and get the ball onto his preferred left foot. Even though every defendre in the world knows it's coming, few can stop it.
Jordy Clasie, M, Feyenoord: A 22-year-old holding midfielder, Clasie has been dubbed "The Dutch Xavi," which tells you all you need to know about his quality on the ball and vision. Expect him to play a big role for a team that is otherwise a little long in the tooth at midfield - Sneijder, especially, shouldn't be expected to go 90 minutes more than once in the group stage. Clasie's patience and ability to hold the ball is a bit of a secret weapon, one that allows the likes of Van Persie and Robben to conserve valuable energy.
Louis van Gaal oversaw the Netherlands' startling failure to reach Japan/Korea 2002, but the well-traveled manager is riding high in his second stint in charge of his homeland's side.
Though not universally loved, the 62-year-old carries a distinguished resume with gigs in charge of Ajax, FC Barcelona, AZ Alkmaar and Bayern Munich. Following the World Cup, he will add another big bullet point as he's been named the new manager at Manchester United.
And he has Die Oranje – a legendarily quarrelsome bunch over the decades – playing soccer that's both attractive and effective.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
WCQ record: 9-0-1, 28 pts. / 34 GF, 5 GA (1st place in Europe’s Group D)
No team in Europe – perhaps no one in the world – were more dominant on the road to Brazil than the Dutch. Their goal differential was the best on the continent and their points total was only matched in their region by Germany's similarly confident cruise through UEFA qualifying.
The only blip on their record was a 2-2 draw at Estonia in September, where it took an injury-time penalty kick from van Persie to escape Tallinn with a point. The Netherlands finished 2013 on a 12-game unbeaten run.
WORLD CUP HISTORY
The Netherlands are such a powerhouse that the occasions on which they miss out on the World Cup in the modern era are more notable than their successful qualifications. A down period in the 1980s saw them miss out on both Spain '82 and Mexico '86 before returning to glory with a title run at the 1988 European Championships, their only major trophy to date. They reached the World Cup final in 1974, 1978 and 2010 and were unlucky to fall at the semifinal stage in 1998.
The USMNT are 0-4-0 all-time against the Netherlands, their most recent meeting a 2-1 Dutch friendly victory in Amsterdam on March 3, 2010, the Yanks' last match before coach Bob Bradley's final roster selection for the World Cup in South Africa ... A bevy of current US internationals including Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan will ruefully recall their 2-2 group-stage draw with Die Oranje in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a match that the Americans led deep into injury time only for a late Gerald Sibon free kick to steal what would have been a famous, quarterfinal-clinching victory ... de Guzman is one of his birth country's most controversial soccer products, having taken Dutch citizenship – and eventually, international allegiance – after joining Feyenoord's youth academy in his early teens ... USMNTer Aron Johannsson plays his club soccer at Dutch Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar and Altidore, Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley have logged time in the influential league.
23-MAN WORLD CUP ROSTER
Defenders: Daley Blind (Ajax Amsterdam), Stefan de Vrij, Daryl Janmaat, Terence Kongolo, Bruno Martins Indi (all Feyenoord Rotterdam), Paul Verhaegh (FC Augsburg), Ron Vlaar (Aston Villa), Joel Veltman (Ajax Amsterdam)
Midfielders: Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord Rotterdam), Jonathan de Guzman (Swansea City), Nigel De Jong (AC Milan), Leroy Fer (Norwich City), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Georginio Wijnaldum (PSV Eindhoven)