Taika Waititi’s 2023 film ‘Next Goal Wins’ revolves around Thomas Rongen, who coaches the American Samoa national soccer team ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. From the worst-ranking soccer-playing region in the world, the team transforms into a fighter as it beats Tonga in the first qualification match. The film, based on Rongen’s life, opens a window into the world of the man who did the impossible with the team that was a laughing stock in front of the world when it lost to Australia for over thirty goals. Rongen is still a part of the world of soccer despite not being present in the dugouts!
Transforming the American Samoan Team
Thomas Rongen became the coach of the American Samoa national team after getting fired as the coach of the United States U20, a team he trained for around five years. He was approached by Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation at the time. “He [Sunil] says, we have a territory called American Samoa and I’m sitting in a bar and I look at my buddy, and I go, ‘Wait, where’s American Samoa?’” Rongen recollected to the Los Angeles Times. After accepting the job, his first challenge was transforming the mentality of the team. He had to change the approach of the players, who had accepted defeats by then.
— Thomas Rongen (@TRongen) October 14, 2023
Rongen accepted the job without really mourning the death of his stepdaughter Nicole, who died in a single-car accident on I-64 in Goochland County, Virginia. After hitting rock bottom due to the untimely death of his loved one, Rongen picked himself up with the help of the support he received from the people in American Samoa. To change the team, Rongen sought the service of Nicky Salapu, the same goalkeeper who conceded 31 goals to Australia. Salapu returned to the team with his gloves on to help the coach transform the way his region played soccer. Rongen also embraced Jaiyah Saelua, the first non-binary player to grace the field in a World Cup qualifier. Together, Rongen and the players rewrote the fate of the soccer team.
American Samoa defeated Tonga 2-1. Qualifying for the World Cup was a tough ask since they had to accept a tie in the match against the Cook Islands and a 1-0 defeat against Samoa. Still, Rongen proved that American Samoa can fight in international soccer. He described the experience as the most rewarding in his life. “It really was that month in American Samoa, which to me, from a personal standpoint and a professional standpoint, probably the most rewarding thing ever,” he told Boston. “It was bigger than any ring I’ve won or any trophy I’ve lifted as a player or as a coach,” he added to the Los Angeles Times.
Where is Thomas Rongen Today?
After helping American Samoa to believe in their soccer team, Rongen left the island in 2011. Upon taking a little time off, he joined Toronto FC, a club that competes in Major League Soccer (MLS), as the academy director. Rongen’s stint with the club ended in 2014, the year he joined Tampa Bay Rowdies to lead the team in the North American Soccer League (NASL), a second-tier league. He was fired in August 2015, along with General Manager/President Farrukh Quraishi after the team’s disappointing performances. In 2016, he was appointed as the head international scout for the United States men’s national soccer team (USMNT) by then-head coach Bruce Arena.
— Thomas Rongen (@TRongen) January 6, 2024
After leaving Tampa Bay Rowdies, Rongen hasn’t coached again. In 2016, he joined beIN Media Group as a broadcast journalist and CBS Interactive as a soccer analyst. He continues to do freelance work for both of these companies. In February 2021, he was appointed as a liaison at the Consulate General of the Netherlands in Miami. Nowadays, Rongen is mostly present at the DRV PNK Stadium, the home of MLS’ Inter Miami CF, where he works as a commentator. He is thrilled about seeing Lionel Messi unleashing his magic on the pitch week after week.
Rongen hasn’t retired as a coach, although he hasn’t trained a team in several years in an official capacity. But we may see him back on the sidelines soon, that too as the coach of American Samoa, to train the 2026 squad. “They reached out to me — we’re in conversation,” Rongen told Esquire. “If I can make a marked improvement? Because yeah, I’m still competitive. It’s the World Cup. But I also would go there again to experience more, and to even at my age continue to grow as a person. So that’s a very strong driving force — and soccer then becomes part of that,” he added.
— Thomas Rongen (@TRongen) December 6, 2023
Rongen is still married to Gail, although the couple are separated in the film. “Elisabeth Moss is my wife in this movie, although I was still very much married to [my wife]. She’s the one in the opening scene that fires me. And that blew me away. I’m going, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ Obviously, she has an affair with the president of [FIFA], which is not really the way it is but Will Arnett is great,” he said in the same Esquire interview. Although he had plans to join the production sets of ‘Next Goal Wins,’ he later decided against it after director Taika Waititi told him that his presence “might throw him [Michael Fassbender, who plays Rongen in the film] off.” Rongen lives in Miami, Florida.
He is eagerly awaiting the 2026 FIFA World Cup as Miami is one of the hosting cities.