RONGEN'S AMAZING JOURNEY
Earlier this month FIFA handed out their annual awards highlighting the best the game had to offer in 2011 and recipients included the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Pep Guardiola.
What was not included was perhaps the most heartwarming story the sport of soccer has seen in years and it happened in a remote area of the globe, thousands of miles away from Camp Nou, Old Trafford, the Maracana, or any other sacred ground the sport has to offer.
America Samoa is a United States territory made up of serveral islands in Oceania and its total area is slightly bigger than Washington, DC. According to the 2010 census, its population is 55,519.
It is an area of the world that still struggles with poverty and a lack of education.
When it comes to the sport of soccer, the America Samoa has been one of the worst national teams in world. Earlier in 2011 they were ranked last in the FIFA rankings, have never won a game, and in 2001 suffered the worst ever loss in a 31-0 drubbing to Australia.
Back in October, with the country's World Cup qualifiers fast approaching, the country federation turned to Amsterdam-born Thomas Rongen to coach the team.
"The level was the lowest I've ever seen of any international team," Rongen told YA. "That still surprised me. I'm Ajax trained, and I'm a disciple of total football. That means taking risks, not being afraid to fail, and being proactive and solving problems. I wanted that to be their motivation."
"I'd done my due diligence prior to going there," he added. "But one thing that I kept going back to is - people like Junior Seau or Troy Polamalu - they can produce players like that. If you have athletes in the modern game, I knew I could maybe do something with that."
Rongen has been a coach since the 1980's and his most recent coaching stint was with the US U20 national team in 2011. That team, however, failed to qualify for the 2011 U20 World Cup after losing their quarterfinal game of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament.
It would seem unlikely that a man who has won MLS coach of the year, coached the US U-20 team in 2003 and 2007 to the U20 World Cup quarterfinals, and who came up through the Ajax system would consider coaching one of the worst national teams in the world.
But for Rongen, it was a special opportunity that offered more to him than just soccer.
"I think the American Samoa adventure allowed me to get into a real methodical slow way of faith and acceptance," Rongen said. "I'm talking about American Samoa - the way they live is just eye-opening for me. It was very pure and made me reconnect again with important things in life."
Little did Rongen realize that what he would accomplish would be historic for American Samoa. Prior to Rongen taking over, American Samoa had never won a game before and had been outscored 20-0 in their previous four games.
But all that changed on November 22 in American Samoa's first game under Rongen as coach when they took on Tonga for their first World Cup qualifier for the 2014 World Cup.
In the game American Samoa's Ramin Ott scored just before halftime and Shalom Luani doubled the lead in the74th minute en route to what would be a dramatic 2-1 victory and their first ever win against a FIFA recognized opponent.
In the second game against the Cook Islands, American Samoa took the lead in the 24th minute through Shalom Luani but conceded an own goal in the second half for a 1-1 draw.
In the third game, American Samoa faced off against Samoa and the game remained scoreless for 89 minutes until Samoa's Silao Malo scored a late winner to eliminate American Samoa.
World Cup qualifying ended for American Samoa that day but their story drew worldwide headlines - including the top story on the FIFA official website. The team went from being the lowest ranked team in the world into one that could win and compete against other countries in the region.
"I can sum it up actually," Rongen said of the win. "It was a pretty amazing and incredible transformation of this team that after the second game, they were not happy. They felt they should have won that game. But they were not happy not keeping the shutout [in the last game]. There was a change in mentality from when they were just looking to keep it under 10 for it to be accomplishment."
For Rongen, 55, the journey this year to American Samoa and the rewards he will take from it have a deeper meaning because it allows him gain a different perspective on his life both on and off the field.
In 2004 Rongen experienced a deep personal tragedy when his step daughter, Nicole Megaloudis, was killed in a tragic automobile accident just outside of Washington, DC. She was only in her freshman year of college at the time.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Rongen and his wife created the Nicole Megaloudis Foundation to help assist students in need of financial aid to attend and graduate college. Over the past eight years, the foundation has given $100,000 to students in need.
While coaching the American Samoa, Rongen was able to connect the foundation to the team and it had a profound impact on him.
"It has significantly changed me in various ways," Rongen said with emotion. "I lost my daughter about eight years ago. And my wife, really more than me, has created a foundation. Going into this, I really didn't think too much about what the foundation potentially could do or couldn't do. But I look now back on so many rewarding things."
"Hopefully we're able to get one or two kids from American Samoa to the U.S. on scholarships," he continued. "I don't think I was really ever emotionally part of [the Foundation] because I was so caught up in my own fear of failure as a head coach in MLS and U-20s. I was so driven in the day-to-day winning and losing. It was taking over, quite frankly. So it all starts to make sense to me quite frankly. I'm not sure that after the accident of my daughter what the purpose of life was."
One of the themes of the Nicole Megaloudis Foundation was the slogan "Make It Happen" and that is a theme that translated into the American Samoan team under Rongen.
There certainly were many themes on the American Samoa team that had touching storylines as well. Many of which will be featured in the upcoming documentary on the team titled "Next Goal Wins."
Two brothers, Ramin and Diamond Ott were both on the team and it was Ramin who scored in the team's win over Tonga. Despite being brothers, they hadn't seen each other in years and each was serving in the US military. During the tournament, one of the brother found out that he and his wife would be expecting their second child.
After the tournament the team created a "Make it Happen" Facebook page detailing the story of the team and its players while tying it into the Nicole Megaloudis Foundation's motto.
"The adventure in American Samoa helped me with spirit and the faith," Rongen explained. "Not faith in a religious way, but also faith in believing in things again. My daughter was a very giving person. She always used to say, ‘I'm going to make it happen' And she always made things happen for others. And players on the American Samoa adopted the slogan called ‘Make It Happen.' She always wanted to build a school for orphans or for Haiti. She lived a very rich life at only 19 years. But I now really start to understand all those things. I'm 55 and very happy I'm able to still do this at my age."
As for Rongen's future, he recently signed on to be the Academy director of Toronto FC where he will continue to teach the game at a high level. He still would like to help out the American Samoa again should his schedule permit.
Rongen is competitive in nature and always has been since his days as a player in the now defunct NASL and through his coaching career as well. But while this will continue, he is a different man after his experiences with the American Samoa.
"I'm still going to be going forward in a very competitive environment where wins and losses do count," Rongen said of his current job. "I'm very competitive and driven but now I can come home actually and draw the line between my one life and my other life, which I haven't been able to do for a long time. That's breaking through a certain barrier within me. It was awesome actually."
Rongen's primary goal as person is to grow the game of soccer within the United States and MLS. He still feels that he is a teacher by nature and is best equipped to work with younger players who are aiming to become professionals.
His desire for helping the United States goes back to his NASL days when he came over from his native Holland to play in for the Los Angeles Aztecs. The experience of playing in the United States had more of a profound impact on him than it did most other foreign players.
When the league folded in the mid-1980's, Rongen wanted to help the sport's growth continue.
"It means a lot to me to have the sport succeed here, really," Rongen stated emphatically. "When NASL died in the early or mid-‘80s, the older players after the league collapsed all went back to their respective countries. I felt that I owed this country more than just leaving."
It was difficult to advance the game in the United States in the decade between the collapse of the NASL and the inception if MLS but Rongen found ways to stay active in the game.
He took a job at Berlitz to teach Dutch and German, he opened a soccer store in Florida, and he coached high school and college.
"I wanted to stay and I wanted soccer to succeed in this country on a professional level. I'm so happy that I was part of the early years of MLS," Rongen discussed. "I've done some real special things. I've entrenched myself in the grassroots level. After the NASL, it would have been easy to get up and leave. I could have been one of the over-the-hill European players who really only came here for the money."
Despite Rongen's love for the United States and the fact he freely admits that he feels more American than Dutch, he is still yet to become an American citizen due to the fact that until recently, it would have required him to surrender his Dutch citizenship. With the laws now changed, Rongen is expecting to become an American citizen in the near future.
For now, he is focused in the upcoming year to continue to advance the quality of youth coaching within the MLS. He was happy when the MLS brought back the reserve league last season but he knows that there is still a long way to go.
Primarily the biggest changes must be met for the players under 10 years old to develop the proper fundamentals. Rongen insists that the quality of coaching must be improved at those ages as opposed to the teenage years because by then, it is too late.
Still he notices improvement and is confident that success is a matter of "when", not "if."
"I think the developmental academy has helped U.S. soccer in general, but that still needs to get to the next level," Rongen concluded. "Really it keeps coming back to producing and creating better coaches. I think if you look at the great countries it's very simple. Good coaches make good players - rarely the other way around. So we have to really emphasize coaching education. We're going to raise the bar. We will."
To make a contribution to the Nicole Megaloudis Foundation, please visit the foundation's website at http://www.remembernicole.org