D.C. United color commentator Thomas Rongen is preparing for a trip to the South Pacific soon — not for vacation, but to oversee a national soccer team that has never won an official match in its history.
Destination: Pago Pago, American Samoa.
“I’m an explorer,” Rongen told me after wrapping up his studio broadcast work for Comcast SportsNet’s coverage of United’s 2-1 loss at Vancouver late Wednesday night. “It’s a part of the world I’ve never been to — once in a lifetime.”
Rongen, 54, is the second U.S.-based coach in recent weeks to take over a foreign squad. But unlike Bob Bradley, the 2010 U.S. World Cup boss who has a realistic chance of guiding Egypt to the 2014 tournament, Rongen inherits a team that, from the best I can gather, has lost all 30 international matches since joining FIFA in 1998 and has been outscored 229-12. American Samoa holds the dubious distinction of being on the losing end of the most lopsided result in international history: 31-0 against Australia in a 2002 qualifier.
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Rongen, a Dutchman who has lived, played, coached and opined in the United States for more than 30 years, oversaw United’s 1999 championship and also coached Tampa Bay, New England and Chivas USA in MLS. He led the U.S. under-20 national team for most of the last 10 years before his dismissal in May.
How did the gig with American Samoa (population: 67,000) come about? As a U.S. territory, American Samoa has strong ties to the mainland, and that includes a relationship between its federation and the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation. The USSF approached Rongen, who remains under contract until the end of the year, about helping a program that, in FIFA’s 207-nation rankings, is tied for last with Andorra, Montserrat, Samoa and San Marino.
Rongen, known on United broadcasts for his colorful commentary and bow ties, said he communicated with American Samoa officials through Facebook and Skype this week to finalize a deal and arrange a course of action.
He will leave for the South Pacific in two weeks and train the squad for a World Cup qualifying round also involving Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga. The first-place side in the Nov. 22-26 event in Apia, Samoa, will advance to Oceania’s Group A with Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Tahiti. New Zealand is the heavy favorite to win the confederation title and advance to a playoff against CONCACAF’s fourth-place finisher in November 2013.
In other words, for American Samoa and the other island nations, it’s a long way — literally and figuratively — to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
American Samoa has a 15-team amateur league and 2,000 registered players. The national team’s only victory — long before it was officially recognized by FIFA — came in 1983: 3-0 over Wallis and Futuna Islands.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Rongen said. “We’ll do our best in qualifying, but I hope to leave something tangible behind as well” through player development efforts and youth clinics this fall.
American Samoa’s most popular sports are soccer and rugby but it has also produced numerous NFL and college football players.
“If all else fails,” Rongen said with a laugh, “I turn into an NFL scout.”