The Unused Substitutes had a chance to speak with new head coach Thomas Rongen during his busy workday trying to build a brand new Rowdies roster in time for the 2015 season. He touched on scouting local and international soccer talent, his renewed interest in coaching, his time with the American Samoan national team, and eventually building an academy for the Rowdies.
So I was I just want to start off by asking what was your mindset before Farrukh called you up and asked if you’d like to come back to coach in Tampa bay? Were you itching to get back to coaching at the club level after spending so many years in Toronto?
Yes. I always enjoyed being the academy director in Toronto. I enjoyed working and developing young professional players, like I did with US Soccer when I was the head coach of the U-20 team. Making those players more aware both on and off the field what it was like to be a good pro. Preparing them for MLS or Europe. Preparing them or our Olympic team, or senior national team. And it was a similar experience in Toronto, a great academy with great facilities. So that was a really enjoyable experience. Saying that, I did miss the day-to-day training; interacting with players, coaching staff, president, and working towards a common goal. So yeah, I really missed that more than I thought I would, especially after boarding up here for a week and looking at how we want to reshape this team. Talking to the assistant coaches, preparing for preseason, you know those are all things that are very familiar, and very enjoyable. And something that I didn’t really know at the time, but I did miss.So I wasn’t actively looking. I had a great stint with American Samoa, coaching some World Cup Qualifiers. I did some television work for Fox. I did some different things in the last few years, but this is where I belong to be real honest with you. On a soccer field, in charge of a team enjoying the pressures of winning and losing, and all those things that come with being a head coach.
Have you started going over footage from this past year of the Rowdies and NASL in general? If you have, what’s your impression of the quality or type of soccer you’ve seen so far?
Every year players go to MLS. So this level is pretty darn good in my opinion. I was very fortunate to live in South Florida, so I went to some of the Strikers games. I’ve seen pretty much every team play, including Tampa last year at Lockhart stadium. I always pay attention to MLS and USL, but in particular the NASL because there’s a vicinity there. I even played in the NASL, so I’m familiar with the Rowdies. I’m familiar with the Strikers. I’m familiar with the Cosmos. And it’s nice to know that I’m able to work with an organization that has a great tradition, and something that I remember very acutely. I played against Perry Van der Beck and Farrukh, and here they are. And we all are on the same team now, and we used to be enemies. So that’s pretty cool.
Have you had a chance to speak with any of the current guys left on the roster yet?
No, we have not. You know, we’re in the offseason right now. We will starting next week, players that are on the roster, and we’ll also reach out to players not on the roster to build our team. So that’s still an ongoing process. I’m still going through tape, and I’ll watch every game that Tampa has played last year to get a real good feel for the current player that are on the roster. That’ll also give me an opportunity to hone my skill in regard to NASL players that are available that we could actually sign. And in between that, I’m travelling Europe and both Central and South America to look at some international players
You’ve stated in a few interviews that you’re interested in tapping into the local college talent pool. What would be your pitch to a college kid coming out to maybe choose NASL over MLS when obviously that hasn’t been the tradition?
Right. Well there are some interesting developments within MLS right now. The Collective Bargaining Agreement is going to probably shrink the rosters from 28-30 to maybe 24. Which means there’s going to be more college players available, in my opinion, for the NASL. Also, a young player I think needs to look at Can I play day in day out on the highest level? Or am I going to be a player that plays occasionally in a reserve team, occasionally in a USL game? Can I play at the highest level within the United States as a potential starter?’ They’ll need to put themselves in a shopping window to see if they can get financially rewarded in the NASL, or jump to MLS or Europe. So we can pitch players, especially players that maybe play for the University of South Florida, that have played for youth teams here, that have been born and raised in Tampa. Ones that love to play here, love to here, that are familiar with their surroundings. Obviously they can spend more time with their families. I think those are important qualities of life that we sometimes don’t realize are important to players. So we have several things going for us. We have a committed ownership group. So I think we can be fairly competitive in some cases with MLS. We’re going to do our due diligence and try to, as I said, get the best available talent, in particular local talent, local products. A guy that’s been going to school here for four years or, like I said was born and raised here. Look at Jeff Attinella. Look at Zac McMath. Look at Ben Sweat. There’s quite a few guys around that can fit the bill. I’m just using those guys as examples.
Let’s talk about filling those international roster spots. I think you guys have 7 international spots afforded to you.
You’ve said that Central and South American players are typically the kinds of players that fit your style well. What is it about players from that region that gel so well with your system?
Well you know I’ve been very fortunate in MLS to coach the Carlos Valderamas of the world, the Marco Etcheverrys, the Jaime Morenos, Paco Palencia, and Raul Ramirez from the Mexican national team. And those players have something special, I think. Something that we don’t find with the American players, or the Northern European players. They’re creative. They have flair. Those are the kinds of guys that we try to seek obviously. That play maybe a little different brand or style, but also have the combination of being athletic and physically strong. But maybe with a more technical base that allows us to play good possession football, and play an attacking brand of football.
The Cosmos have been creating a lot of buzz in the league with their academy that is set to start up next year. With all your experience working in the youth system, is that a road you’d like to see the Rowdies go down eventually? Obviously something like that takes a lot of planning and investment.
Absolutely. I mean, we would like to develop players for our first team. We would like to develop players to sell them because that’s part of your overall business strategy. So that makes sense. Each and every year when you can get two or three players coming out of your academy that can be a part of the first team. That is of the utmost importance. Along with that we have to try to create a culture that we are a family, that people have loyalty towards the club. For that you have to start with 8,9, and 10 year olds eventually, which we will because that’s where we want to go. That’s where Farrukh and myself ultimately wants to go. The ownership group has also bought into that. It might not happen next year, but it is definitely going to happen sooner than later. We’re going to build an academy that we can be proud of, one that will produce some special players.
There’s been a lot of publicity around you because of your time with the American Samoa National team. How did your time with that team change your outlook as a coach?
Actually, you know what it did? It rekindled my passion and my love for the game. I returned to the way I was when I started to play and coach, when I really loved it. It had become a job after a while. I was driven more by fear of failure. I left American Samoa with a way more positive and human outlook on the way I need to conduct myself. The way I need to need to teach my players. The way I need to approach a project, with a level of energy, with a level of passion or love that we all at one point in time have for this game when we start playing it. The Samoan players don’t get paid a penny. Samoan players hadn’t won a game in 10 years. Samoan players were the worst team in the world and they kept coming back for more for the sole reason that they really love the game. That was very refreshing. We don’t see that in modern football very often anymore. It’s very cynical. It’s money-driven. For me, my time there brought out a side that I had not seen of myself, maybe a lot more human so to speak. I have not lost my drive to be successful or to push a team. I’m still emotional. But I think I’m a more well-rounded coach, and I’ll be able to deal with more adversity, and with different personalities a little better going forward.
One last question for you. It’s the one everyone would want me to ask. Can you possibly shed some light on when we can expect to see some signings for the club?
We just want to make sure we do the right thing. So we are, with the whole staff, we are doing our due diligence. We are travelling to foreign countries to talk with and to look at players. We are currently looking at players that played in the NASL. We are looking at players that are currently a part of MLS but could be free agents shortly. And we’re also obviously looking at philosophically, where we want to take this team. How can we bring in players that can execute the Total Football style of play that we want to see that’ll entertain our fans? If we could sign ten tomorrow, we’d do it. We know we’re under a little bit of a time constraint, but we’re not too worried about that. We’re talking to a lot of players’ agents. We want to make sure we have a talented group top to bottom that can compete for us and get some results. I think January is probably going to be our busy month in terms of signing players. I would like to think we can sign some players before year’s end as well. Currently we have some offers out there. So time will tell.