The biggest stars of world football flooded American shores late in the 1970s. Pele and Franz Beckenbauer came. So did George Best, Nene Cubillas, Gerd Muller and Johan Cruyff. And when the old North American Soccer League, NASL for short, folded a few years later, they all packed their bags and went back home.

Not Thomas Rongen. The rugged midfielder forged at the Ajax Academy stayed behind. He saw potential in America, then an arid frontier of the world game. “I knew the game had a future here,” Rongen, now head coach of Tampa Bay Rowdies in NASL’s unlikely rebirth, told FIFA.com. He speaks in a low, gravelly voice, remnants of his native Netherlands thick around the edges. “I never lost faith.” 

Now 58, Rongen came to the States in 1979 from Amsterdam. In sunny Los Angeles he played with Dutch icon Cruyff for the Aztecs. More ball-winner than wizard, Rongen moved to the Washington Diplomats and then the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, playing behind Gerd Muller. He even got a taste of Minnesota during the league’s last season.

“It was a dark moment when it folded,” he said from his home in Florida of the NASL’s demise in 1984, recalling days when it seemed America’s soccer experiment had failed. “But I knew that pro soccer would come back. The generation that tasted 60,000 fans in the Meadowlands, that saw what Nene Cubillas and Best could do with the ball, what Pele could do, there was no way to undo that,” he said. “I wanted to be part of the turnaround.”

Rongen smokes. He swears. He wears his heart on his sleeve and indulges his temperament. He says exactly what he thinks and shows little patience for officials, who call him difficult, being as diplomatic as they can. He does things very much his own way. He’s been, over the last 30 years, a critical part of the turnaround he stubbornly foresaw.

As a player, Rongen had a ferocious desire to win, a determination born of keen intelligence, not genius. He was tapped to coach in 1996 for Major League Soccer’s first season. It was the first attempt at pro soccer in America since the NASL collapsed 12 years before. He built his Tampa Bay Mutiny around the languid Colombian genius Carlos Valderrama, and Rongen was named coach of the year for his efforts.

It was fitting for Rongen, who later won a title with DC United, to be back on the bench when top-tier soccer returned to the States. But his personality didn’t win fans in the seats of power, and his desire to play open, expansive soccer – to “entertain,” as he puts it – brought as many losses as wins. Soccer was becoming a business and Rongen’s wilful nature was bad for it.

Focus on youth
His greatest success came at a lower level, huddled in the background. For ten years between 2001 and 2011, Rongen was in charge of the USA U-20s. It’s one of the last stops for players on their way to the full Stars and Stripes. If they wanted the glory, they had to go through the gruff Dutchman first. “I knew my role and I’m proud of what I did,” said the coach who led the US to four straight U-20 World Cups. In the United Arab Emirates in 2003, with a then unknown Clint Dempsey in the team, Rongen missed out on the semis only after losing in extra time to Argentina, replete with such future superstars as Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez. In 2007, Rongen remembers a “proudest moment,” when his youngsters, among them Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, beat a Brazil boasting Marcelo and David Luiz.

It wasn’t all roses for Rongen. He was blamed, fairly or not, for the loss of Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic. The world-class defender clashed with his former coach at youth level and decided to pledge his senior career to his native Serbia, rather than the US.

It’s all come full circle for Rongen. After a short but ground-breaking stint in charge of American Samoa, he’s now coaching the Tampa Bay Rowdies – a power in the old NASL – in the new NASL. The league reformed three years ago, as a second tier behind MLS. It’s attracted fading stars like former Spanish internationals Raul and Marcos Senna, but mostly works as a secondary option for young American players. “I’ll try to do what I always did,” Rongen said. “I want to play exciting soccer, to get results and also to keep the fans interested.”

Rongen’s not lost his passion for the American version of the world’s game. “American players have come a long way,” he said, a fact he knows better than most. He’s already proven his willingness to sacrifice, to scratch and to claw, to make soccer stronger, more vibrant, and more alive. “The game’s healthier here than it’s ever been,” he concluded with obvious pride, his faith in the game, and in his adoptive US, confirmed