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Gary Shelton: Rowdies coach went a long way to find growth

in Apolitical/Sports/The Bay and the 'Burg by

There are new seats behind him. There is fresh paint in front of him. The slogans of a team are around him. The sound of an earthmover beeps as it hurries through the day.

For Thomas Rongen, it seems as good a spot as any to talk about growth.

Of a sport.

Of a team.

Of a man.

Rongen, 58, sits on a bench at Al Lang Field, and the sailboats drift past. The Tampa Bay Rowdies team he coaches has finished practice, but the construction workers go about their paces in a hurry to turn what is into what will be. Rongen knows a bit about that, too.

He is new himself. He had rediscovered a love for soccer that had left him, a connection to the fabric of the sport that had been lost.

Funny. That love was waiting for him in the middle of the Pacific Ocean all along. You know, in American Samoa.

This is the story of country and of a man and the sport that bound them. The country is American Samoa, a nation that didn’t seem particularly skilled in the game. The man is Rongen, a man who admits he had grown “cynical and sad’’ about the sport he coached.

The story is told in a  new documentary, Next Goal Wins, now showing at the Sunscreen Film Festival.

It was 2011 when Rongen went to American Samoa. He jokes that he is Dutch, and it is in his DNA to travel. So he went to try to make something of the worst soccer team in the world.

Of the national rankings, American Samoa was 204th (last). It had lost 30 games over 17 years, and it had been outscored 229-12. In one memorable game, American Samoa had lost a 31-0 game to Australia in which one player (Archie Thompson) had scored 13 goals and another (David Zdrilic) had scored eight. If three goals is a hat trick, what sort of trick is 13?

So, yeah, the team needed a little help. He still had the goalie (Nicky Salupu) who had been in net when the team lost 31-0. He had a male-to-female transgender player (Jaiyah Saelua) who would end up starting for him and clearing the ball just before it would have tied the game against Tonga. He had a bunch of players who could barely dribble a ball when training began.

That team beat Tonga, 2-1, in its World Cup opener.

Imagine the size of the upset. It was like all the Bad News Bears movies you’ve ever seen. The Cool Runnings of soccer, he calls it.

Now imagine what it did to a jaded coach who had rediscovered himself. That was an upset, too.

“I had lost my love for the game,’’ Rongen said. “I was cynical, sad. I was still driven to do well, but for all the wrong reasons. I was always afraid I was going to be fired. I didn’t care as much about the game.’’

Rongen’s daughter, Nicole, had died in an automobile accident, and Rongen will tell you he had never come to terms with the loss.

“In American Samoa, I was finally able to cry,’’ he said.

These days, Rongen will tell you that he cannot wait to get up in the morning. He loves going to practice again. He loves having a team to guide into a new season.

He was raised as an atheist, but Rongen compares his time on the islands as a “spiritual awaking.’’ Yes, he changed the team. But they changed him, too.

As the Rowdies prepare for their home opener Saturday night, know this: The coach is improved. He’s smarter. More at peace. Wiser.

They are better for each other.

Tampa Bay is better, too.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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