Jonah Freedman reports that Thomas Rongen has never had this much attention in his 35-plus years in professional soccer. He's given dozens of
interviews in the past week -- more, he estimates, than during any other period in his career.
Rongen, the former coach of four MLS teams and the U.S. U-20 national team, guided the American Samoa national team -- ranked dead last in the FIFA world rankings for the past decade – to its first-ever victory as an officially recognized national team. He calls it “the single most challenging, rewarding and amazing coaching experience of my life.”
Although the American Samoans ultimately came up short in their far-fetched quest to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Rongen totally transformed the culture on a tiny island of some 68,000 inhabitants, barely more than 75 square miles in size and whose closest metropolitan city – Brisbane, Australia – is 2,500 miles away. “I had one of the only cars on the island,” Rongen says. “I’d kick [the players'] butts at practice every morning, then I’d have to drive them to school or to the tuna boats. They came right back again and did a second session without a single complaint.”
The team’s 2-1 win over Tonga in the first game of the round-robin World Cup qualifying tournament on Nov. 22 was a stunning turn of events for a team that had been outscored an unbelievable 184-4 over its past 21 contests. The winning goal was produced by 17-year-old Shalom Luani, a high-schooler whose participation on the team was dependent on the permission of his local chief, which Rongen negotiated.