He might just be the single most important signing ever by Toronto FC.
If he could turn the world's worst team into winners, imagine what Thomas Rongen could do with some of Canada's top young prospects. The 55-year-old Dutchman is the man handpicked by TFC head coach Aron Winter to run the club's new Academy.
Rongen has been writing his own headlines recently. In one tiny corner of the soccer world, he's regarded as a hero. Last November, the former MLS Cup winning coach led American Samoa to its first ever FIFA international victory, an astounding achievement for an island nation accustomed to some very heavy defeats.
Check the record books and there it is. In qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, Australia lashed American Samoa 31-0. The result remains a record for an official international and is unlikely to be threatened anytime soon.
A decade later little had changed. American Samoa participated at the 2011 Pacific Games and, as usual, was the tournament whipping boy. Five straight losses, no goals scored and 26 conceded - featuring back to back 8-0 defeats to New Caledonia and Vanuatu.
You get the picture. Enter Rongen, recently relieved of his duties as U.S. under-20 head coach - paying the price for failing to qualify for the FIFA U20 World Cup. Still under contract to US Soccer, he was banished to the farthest flung outpost of the American soccer world.
In a few short weeks he transformed what loosely resembled the team. Rongen embraced the Polynesian culture, sleeping, eating and praying according to local custom. What transpired was much more than just another coaching gig. He recently described it as "the single most rewarding and amazing coaching experience" of his life.
For a man who has spent his entire adult life playing or teaching the game it is quite a statement. By Rongen's own admission it was akin to a spiritual journey and he "wasn't raised religious." He was raised by the famed Ajax of Amsterdam Academy and mentored by Rinus Michels - the Godfather of 1970's Total Football.
Rongen has done something few of his contemporaries can match. He has managed to bridge the gap between old and new. As a player he was there at the demise of the NASL and as a coach he was there at the dawn of Major League Soccer. He has adapted to his circumstances and thus retained relevance within the North American game.
His work with emerging players will certainly have alerted Toronto FC, who had been actively seeking a replacement for Stuart Neely following his resignation as Academy Director. Rongen twice led the American U20 team to the quarterfinals of the U20 World Cup, helping to launch the international careers of players such as Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
One of his first tasks will be to help guide TFC through the 2012 MLS Superdraft. Toronto has the relative luxury of two first round picks in Kansas City, its own at No. 4 and another at No. 12 as part of the trade which saw Dwayne De Rosario move to New York last spring.
But it is Rongen's work in coming years which promises to be most significant. He will take over a purpose-built, multi-million dollar facility which must produce the stars of tomorrow. Under his direction, Toronto FC has a responsibility to grow its own.
For all the failings at first team level it is easy to forget this is a franchise still in its infancy. Gradually, young players like Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry are beginning to graduate into the professional ranks but Rongen and his staff will have the opportunity to turn the trickle into a torrent.
The fruits of his labour will take time to mature. Don't expect Toronto FC to be bursting with exciting, skilful Canadian rookies this year or next, but given stability and commitment at youth level, the Toronto Academy might just have something to be proud of down the line.
If Thomas Rongen can succeed on a tiny, volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where obesity rates are among the worst in the world, he can surely thrive in the Great White North.
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