The Beautiful Life of Thomas Rongen

thomas rondgen
The Beautiful Life of Thomas Rongen Myles Pettengill

In this Last Dance-ified, all-caps BECKHAM boom times of the sports documentary, you probably missed few gems from the past decade. But if you'll spare me one recommendation—a mere 90 minutes that'll make your heart full again—let it be 2014's Next Goal Wins. The film follows the American Samoa men's national football team, who work themselves up from the worst squad in international football to scoring goals, a once-magical thought. With today's sports docs hyper-focusing on the pains of greatness, Next Goal Wins is a reminder of how spiritual a simple game can be, and what it means to kick a ball around simply for the love of the person you're kicking the ball to.

If you'd rather watch the Hollywood version, I have good news: Jojo Rabbit director Taika Waititi turned Next Goal Wins into a feature film, out now, starring the great Michael Fassbender as the team's eccentric Dutch leader, Thomas Rongen. The former MLS head coach is a standout in the documentary and Waititi's adaptation—in both, he's a bit of a fish-out-of-water type who rediscovers his love of the great game. I caught up with him a couple weeks before the premiere of Next Goal Wins.

When Rongen pops up on Zoom, he's wearing a blue kit, looking happy as heck. Nowadays, he's the color commentator for Inter Miami, AKA Team Lionel Messi. No wonder why he's enjoying life lately. But we'll get to that. The most pressing question, of course, is if Rongen will return to American Samoa to coach the 2026 squad. "They reached out to me—we're in conversation," the 67-year-old Rongen says. "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."

There you go, folks. Elsewhere in our conversation, we talked about the differences between Rongen's real-life story and the film (spoiler: Waititi took quite a few liberties), lasting lessons from Ted Lasso, and the team that changed his life. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

2023 toronto international film festival next goal wins
Thomas Rongen (left), Jaiyah Saelua (middle), and Taika Waititi (right) at the Next Goal Wins premiere.Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

ESQUIRE: Someone who just saw Next Goal Wins and is reading this to learn more about you probably doesn’t know that you just bore witness to the summer of Lionel Messi in the United States.

THOMAS RONGEN: I'm telling you, with all due respect to Croy and Pele, I've never seen anything like it. I've been able to travel a few times to away games, and the first trophy that we won in Nashville in the League's Cup. Just for Messi to give the armband—which was given to him by DeAndre Yedlin, who plays for the US Men's National Team—when he arrived. Before they lifted the trophy, Messi and gave him the armband and they lifted it together. There's small little things besides the fact that he's the all-time best, and the first-ever active player in this country to win a Ballon d'Or. And he's playing for my local club, Inter Miami. I call his games each and every time, which is pretty insane.

I could talk to you all day about that. Let’s make sure we get the basics of your story—obviously you had a documentary crew with you in 2014, but when did you learn that your time in American Samoa would be shown in a feature film?

It was Taika calling me. I remember vividly that he said, “I'm Taika Waititi and I'm from New Zealand. I won an Oscar with JoJo Rabbit. But I want to go back to my Polynesian roots." We all sit around a table, and I actually did get an answer to the question: Who should play you in a movie? Well, Magneto, Inglourious Basterds, Steve Jobs—one of the most versatile actors in the business—who is now daring enough to take on a comedy-drama. So that's how I found out. I've never spoken to or met Michael Fassbender.

Were there ever any plans to?

I was supposed to fly out to the location to help a little bit more with soccer-related skills and things like that. But Taika had called me a few days before and said, “You know what, I just spoke to Michael—he's totally engaged in your character. And he's done research. It might throw him off." I can relate that a little bit as a player or a coach leading up to a big game. I won an MLS Cup with DC United, for instance. The days leading up to that I'm totally focused. I mean, I'm not sure how many people understand that not to bother me. So I totally get it.

Broadly speaking, do you feel like the film captures you and the spirit of that time in your life?

Yes. As Taika said at Toronto International Film Festival. "Hey, I had to twist the truth. Otherwise [you’d be] watching the documentary. And Thomas, I want to prepare you but you're initially going to be a bit of a villain, which I wasn't in the documentary." So when I watched it, the first few minutes just blew my top off, because I'm totally different. The second time in New York, where I did something for Major League Soccer, I was able to sit back and grasp it a little bit better. Michael Fassbender plays me absolutely brilliantly. Even the accent is there.

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. Oscar Knightley is great. Rhys Darby. [Waititi wanted to put] Polynesian actors front and and center, so you got David Fane, you got Beulah Koale from Hawaii Five-O, Angus Sampson from The Lincoln Lawyer, and Kaimana, [who] plays Jaiyah Saelua really well.

I was going to bring up Jaiyah, because as a newcomer to this story, she felt like a revelation in both the documentary and the film. Waititi's adaptation depicts you at odds with her, but it doesn't seem like that's how it actually happened. Tell me about meeting her in 2014, when society was probably even less accepting of an out transgender athlete.

The Dutchies are pretty liberal, open-minded, and good people that embrace other cultures that speak their languages. The first hour [of Next Goal Wins] people are gonna say, "Oh my god, this is not a nice guy." I embraced Jaiyah from the beginning. What [the team] taught me actually, Brady, was emotional intelligence—which I never used as a coach in all my years prior. I [was a] stubborn Dutchman—very direct, in your face.

My stepdaughter was killed in a car accident. I did not cry since. The first time I just totally broke down with them in church—I can’t stop sobbing. On the first day, which Taika does so well—although in the movie, Fassbender is fighting it—several tribes on the island all have this big gong. Everybody stops, bus stops, people come off the bus, and everybody sits around, including my players during training. They go, “Coach, every day, four o'clock. You can pray, whatever you want to do, reflect.” So I did that with them each and every day and my heart rate went down. Again, I didn't become super religious, but I became—to a certain point—spiritual, which allowed me, three days later, to shed all those demons and finally mourn. And finally, the next day, look at a picture of my daughter, which I did in the past and blamed myself for a lot of things. And I smiled. It was wonderful that these people taught me to reflect and to open up and to let go.

You said something beautiful in the Next Goal Wins documentary—that you coached from a place of fearing failure, whereas the American Samoa played for “zero,” meaning that they simply loved the game. Do you think that purity is missing from sports today?

Oh, absolutely. When we look at this, we look at the money-grabbing EPL or international football, you know. This is a human interest story. These guys get their ass handed [to them] every game, but they're still proud to represent their country. And we wanted to follow the story of the worst team in the world and follow their emotions, the learnings of a group to make the country proud. As you said, they just play for the pure love of the game. We don't see enough of that anymore. And I got caught up in that as well, Brady. It was all about winning.

Then when I saw the agony of my family, and my daughter didn't want to move [between cities] anymore—we couldn't find her for two days. And all of a sudden, you know? I mean, yeah. Insane. I look back at it. I don't even know how, at times, I got through it. At the end of all of this, this movie— the message is simple. It's like, Be happy and slow the F down. If that's what you walk away with from this movie, be happy and slow the F down.

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"At the end of all of this, this movie— the message is simple," Rongen says. "It’s like, Be happy and slow the F down."Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

That’s beautiful.

I showed some of my fear of failure in intense moments, but the documentary shows me slowing down and becoming more humanized, and yeah, understanding the winning was great. But the President told me a week later, "We signed up 200 kids between ages eight and 12. They now have heroes—because rugby and American football is bigger. So thank you coach for those things." The goalkeeper gave up 31 goals that retired—I had to bring him back because he told me the first time on the phone, "People still recognize me and my son thinks I'm a failure." And I wanted to bring him back so his son would think he was a failure. He comes up to me 50 minutes after the game. He's crying. “I just spoke to my son. He thinks I’m a hero.”

You went there with an open heart. That’s hard to do.

Have you seen Ted Lasso?

Of course I have.

They go to Amsterdam! And their Total Football story— it's about letting go of your baggage and trusting your intuitions. It’s jazz. It's Motown. It's Einstein. It's Gaga. It's all about throwing off your constraints. We all know football is life. But a beautiful life is Total Football. Brilliantly captured by Beard—and so true in so many ways. I've applied that throughout my career as best as I could. But I really was able to do that and be myself, finally, without fear of failure. In American Samoa, I became such a better person for it.

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