When Leerdam began kicking a ball at age 2 in Suriname, his mother, Juliette, figured it was more than youthful exuberance. Between her soccer genes and those of Leerdam’s father, Marlon Grando — a household soccer name in Suriname — there was a good chance her son would excel.
It wasn’t his famous, soccer-playing father that gave dynamic Sounders right back Kelvin Leerdam his first taste of the sport.
That fell to his mother, Juliette, a primary school teacher who raised young Kelvin mostly on her own in their native Suriname until he was 2, then left him with his grandparents while she sought a better life overseas. Her family in that little-known, former Dutch colony on South America’s northeast coast was full of good soccer players and she had been one of them.
So, when Leerdam began kicking a ball around as a toddler, she figured more than youthful exuberance was at work and would try to encourage him during her yearly visits back to see him. Between her soccer genes and those of Leerdam’s father, Marlon Grando — a household soccer name from Suriname’s national team glory days — there was a better-than-average chance her son would excel at the sport.
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“When I was 4, she started playing with me at her parents’ house,’’ Leerdam said. “When she noticed the way I was handling the ball, she’d keep testing me out further and see how it would go.’’
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And the tests kept coming for both Leerdam and his unmarried parents via on-again, off-again living arrangements for all three of them and years of separation by cities and continents. It would be soccer that kept bringing them back together time and again, forging a lasting bond even after his mother and father finally separated for good.
Leerdam’s father had left for Rotterdam in The Netherlands when he was 1, to be joined by his mother a year later. She fully intended to bring Kelvin overseas eventually, but it would be seven more years before that happened.
“I had no brothers or sisters, so I was on my own in Suriname,’’ Leerdam said. “I had my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, but you learn to be by yourself and how to handle being on your own.’’
His mother spent years cleaning houses in Rotterdam while studying for her teaching license in that country.
“It wasn’t easy,’’ Juliette Leerdam said, by phone from The Netherlands. “I had to start over again from the bottom. It was very hard leaving Kelvin in Suriname, but I had to do what I could for our future.’’
She phoned her son often and during her yearly visits, a soccer ball was never far behind.
“I was a soccer player in Suriname, so I knew what to do,’’ she said, adding she’d played for local club teams. “It wasn’t the same level as with the guys, but I knew some skills and some things we could practice. He was very young, but he was eager.’’
Suriname and soccer
For the Surinamese, few things matter — and get their collective backs up — as much as soccer. The nation gained independence only in 1975 and has long striven to distance itself from its Dutch colonial past.
Kelvin Leerdam file
Height, weight: 5-10, 154
Born: Paramaribo, Suriname
MLS stats: 8 games, 7 starts, 1 goal, 1 assist
Previous clubs: Feyenoord (2008-13), Vitesse (2013-17)
International career: Netherlands U19 and U21
Some of the greatest names in recent Dutch soccer — Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf — all hailed from Suriname. But Suriname forbids dual citizenship and won’t let natives who’ve moved to and played professionally in The Netherlands come back to join the national side.
As a result, Suriname long ago became known as the world’s best soccer country nobody’s heard of. And the place your son will have to move away from if wanting a future in the sport.
Leerdam’s father knew that. By the late-1970s, Grando was on a Surinamese national team that captured the 1978 Caribbean Football Union championship and then missed qualifying for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow by just one spot.
But when the United States announced a boycott of the Games because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, a spot opened up for Grando’s team. For several weeks, he and teammates dreamed of representing their fledgling nation on the world’s stage.
Then, at the last minute, Suriname — which had accepted its Games invitation, but undergone a military coup months earlier — decided not to go.
“It was very hard,’’ Grando, 55, said. “Because it would be the first time that (independent) Suriname would participate in an Olympic event and show the world what we had. I was very disappointed about that. Suriname is such a small country in soccer. The moment you have a chance to be there, you’ve got to be there.’’
Suriname, population 585,000, has not come close to qualifying for Olympic or World Cup soccer since, despite continuing to produce elite-level players.
Grando eventually competed in some CONCACAF games in Mexico and the U.S. But he could never make a living off being a soccer player.
Life in Suriname had also begun deteriorating in the early 1980s after the coup. Civilian killings and murders of political dissidents followed — including the slaying of former soccer star and FIFA vice-president Andre Kamperveen.
Leerdam was born in 1990 under military rule. After his father left for Rotterdam in 1991, he wouldn’t see his son again until he was 9.
‘He’s got talent’
Though Leerdam’s mother eventually joined his dad overseas, they’d often split up and then get back together again. His father wasn’t in daily contact like his mother was..
“I knew who my father was,’’ Leerdam said. “But I didn’t have an emotional bond with him at that time. I didn’t have a picture in my head of who he was as a person.”
Grando admits he didn’t know much about the son growing up an ocean away. But then his brother went to visit the family in Suriname and saw Leerdam, age 5 or 6, playing soccer.
“My brother came back and told me, ‘You’ve got to bring that boy as quickly as possible over to Holland. He’s got talent. You don’t want to waste it.’ ”
It took three more years, but Leerdam finally joined his parents. But they were no longer living together. His mother had relocated to the city of Utrecht, while his father remained in Rotterdam.
But his father would make weekend trips to see Leerdam in Utrecht. Leerdam would accompany his father to community soccer games he played in, bonding with him afterward over ice cream and snacks from a nearby canteen.
Leerdam’s parents were still on and off again, having a daughter — Kellynsia, now 16 — about two years after Leerdam’s arrival in the Netherlands.
Leerdam’s dad had been training him as a soccer player on those weekends he’d visit the family. Once, Leerdam went to see his father play in a local club match and afterward joined other children for their own pickup game.
“I didn’t play for any teams at the time,” Leerdam said. “But one of the other fathers said to mine, ‘Your son can play. Let me see what I can do.’ ”
That father arranged a tryout for Leerdam with the USV Elinkwijk youth club, the same team Dutch soccer legend Marco van Basten began with. The team’s coach signed Leerdam after one workout. “He saw that I could play,” Leerdam said.
By age 14, the Feyenoord professional team invited Leerdam to its youth academy. A distant cousin, Georginio Wijnaldum, Dutch born to Surinamese parents, also joined, and he and Leerdam became fast friends.
“We were together almost every day on the pitch and away from it,” Leerdam said. “We talked about soccer, but a lot of other things as well.”
Both played professionally for Feyenoord in the top-flight Eredivisie before Wijnaldum’s career took him to England, where he is a regular for Liverpool in the English Premier League. As for Leerdam, he remained with Feyenoord until 2013, when he signed with Dutch club SBV Vitesse.
A new career chapter
Things went well until coach Peter Bosz left midseason in January 2016 and Rob Maas took over on an interim basis. Soon after, Leerdam gave an interview to the Voetbal International soccer website criticizing the team’s usage of him.
Maas immediately demoted Leerdam to the Vitesse second-division squad — big news in Holland, where the reserved Leerdam wasn’t known as a troublemaker. His mother remembers a quiet boy who would “sit around playing video games.”
But Leerdam, while soft-spoken, prides himself on being direct.
“For me, everybody knows who I am,” Leerdam said. “If something’s on my chest, I’m going to say it until I get it off my chest.”
Leerdam was reinstated the following season under a new coach and played the final year of his contract before transferring to the Sounders. He said the demotion wasn’t why he left, and he simply wanted to explore his offers from elsewhere.
He hasn’t lost since coming here in mid-July, helping the Sounders ride a club-record 11-game unbeaten streak.
But he’s still adjusting to more physical Major League Soccer play and the styles of teammates. And his parents, once again separated from their son, are adjusting as well.
His father is battling prostate cancer but speaks to Leerdam daily by phone to discuss his play. His mother admits to crying at times while scrambling to find a European cable channel carrying a Sounders match.
She knows they’ve all come a long way since their first separation a quarter century ago. Also, that the years initially lost with her son can’t be retrieved.
“I hope that, in a few years, I’ll look back on it all and say that it was all worth it,’ ” she said. “Right now I’m not quite there yet.’’
But for Leerdam, the reward comes whenever he steps on the pitch. He has that bond he’d once longed for with his dad and the soccer life his mother foresaw when he began kicking a ball around at her feet.
“She did what she had to do,” Leerdam said.
And so did he, even if somebody else made that call for him. Leerdam remains proud of his Surinamese roots, having lived his first nine years there. But like any soccer player wanting a future, he’s ultimately glad he left.