By Glenn Davis – HOUSTON, TX (Aug 17, 2004) USSoccerPlayers – Thomas Rongen led the Under 20 USMNT to a fifth place finish at the 2003 Fifa Youth World Championships in the United Arab Emirates. With the 2005 World Youth Championships in the Netherlands Rongen looks forward to returning to his native country. Rongen has been in charge of the U-20 USMNT since 2001 after time spent as the head coach of DC United where he led them to an MLS Cup title in 1999. He was previously coach of the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
As a youth, Rongen grew up in the famed Ajax system through the under-19 level while also playing for the Dutch Olympic team under the legendary Rinus Michels. Rongen originally came to the United States at 21 years of age when Michels, then the head coach of the LA Aztecs, was in search of what he called “ a cheap Dutch player I like.” Rongen went on to play six seasons for LA, DC, Fort Lauderdale, and Minnesota in the North American Soccer League with and against Dutch heroes like Johan Cruyff, Rudd Krol, Wim Jansen, and Wim Surbier.
What was it like growing up in the Netherlands in such a great soccer culture and in the shadows of Ajax?
As a boy growing up in Amsterdam Ajax was the only club I would consider. So would 10,000 other kids. Through my family tradition back to my grandfather you cherished the club. We had season tickets through generations.
Getting into the youth system at Ajax was no mean feat with the amount of youth that tried out for the club. What was your feeling when you were selected?
I can’t describe it . It was total elation. To wear a jersey synonymous with something so special was incredible. Every kid who didn’t make it always walked away with a real good experience.
Tell me about the influences on your playing and coaching career?
I was formed clearly from the Ajax system. Four people have been big influences. Rinus Michels taught me about organization, tactics, and team spirit. Johan Cruyff and Teofilo “Nene” Cubillas taught me the game was played for the audience. They felt we should win 6-5 instead of 1-0. They taught me simplistic things but things that registered. Elias Figueroa taught me the art of defending.
How has this translated to coaching teams in the APSL, MLS, and at the youth national team level?
My teams in MLS, the American Professional Soccer League, and the national team have always scored goals. There is a fine line between achieving results and entertaining. Sometimes my tactical brain is in turmoil, I was a defender by trade as a player, but I am drawn towards players with technical ability. You try to balance your team between attacking and defending.
Once you reached the NASL, what was it like playing with and against the heroes of Dutch soccer that always inspired you as a youth?
I was like a kid in a candy store. Neeskens, Surbier, Krol, Rijsbergen, Van Beveren, it was totally awesome. It was something I only could have dreamnt of. To sit at a table with Cruyff, Beckenbauer, and Mueller I had to pinch myself but I also listened and learned.
What is it like working under US coach Bruce Arena?
We are good colleagues. Our connection began in 1996 where there was a great mutual respect for our teams. We’ve become good friends on and off the field. Bruce is an influence to all American coaches. He has emerged as the best coach this country has ever had. He finds ways to get results at all levels.
What have you learned from him?
He taught me about managing players. His ability to pick players and put them in the right spots is unique. Putting Claudio Reyna on the right side in the last World Cup against Mexico was a stroke of genius.
We know you have interviewed with expansion Salt Lake City how much interest do you have in returning to MLS?
I am happy where I am at but there is always something in you that relishes new challenges. An expansion team is especially interesting because you can imprint your own philosophy. I have a tremendous sense of loyalty to the current U20 team. I’ve had one interview with Salt Lake and am honored and flattered they approached me. In the end it could be a tough choice . Deep down I want to see the U20 cycle through.
How do you see the current U-20 USMNT?
The new group is halfway through the process. We have identified our top 25 players and have played in tournaments and have an interesting balance. We are now balanced more towards the collegiate players. Somewhere around 14 collegiate players and 8 pros. Freddy Adu is the only holdover.
What are your main responsibilities with young national team players?
Develop, identify, get results. I want to push them to the next level and see them produce in MLS.
As a broadcasting colleague how do you like it behind the mic analyzing games?
It has made me analyze games in 10 seconds. I have to be sharp and convey information. Color commentary has made me a better coach.
Was it difficult working DC United broadcasts after being the club’s coach?
I had some healthy apprehension but it wasn’t really. It helped me because I had insight into the team. I am a much better observer , I have to be on my ‘A’ game.
Let’s end on the lighter side. Was Mike Myers depiction of Goldmember in the movie of the same name fair to the Dutch?
It’s not a fair depiction of the Dutch. We got a bad shake out of that movie.