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Q&A with Thomas Rongen

Former D.C. United coach reacts to end of long tenure as U.S. Men's Under-20 boss

Thomas Rongen

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On Thursday morning, U.S. Soccer confirmed the news that many observers have been expecting since April 6, when the highly-rated U.S. Under-20 Men's National Team failed to qualify for the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup: after nearly a decade at the post, head coach Thomas Rongen will no longer lead the squad.

Rongen, who will continue his duties as a D.C. United television commentator, spoke with Potomac Soccer Wire via phone shortly after the news broke. Beyond his own thoughts on the federation's decision, the Dutchman laid out a list of his proudest achievements in the job and hailed the new generation of U.S.-bred players now growing into prominent coaching roles.

PSW: First of all, could you share your firsthand perspective on the new developments regarding your position with U.S. Soccer?

TR: Well, it’s a simple one. U.S. Soccer is going in a different direction with the Under-20s. I think after nine years, it’s probably the right decision, one that I would second, quite frankly. Basically my contract is not being renewed as the U-20s coach. Saying that, there probably still will be some opportunities within the organization to utilize my strengths, so I feel very good about being with U.S. Soccer and finding a way to contribute to the game and to U.S. Soccer.

PSW: Do you have a clear picture of what your next role might be?

TR: No, I think there’s quite a few things going on within U.S. Soccer that are being discussed right now. You’ve got the Development Academy, you’ve got Claudio Reyna implementing his new [coaching] curriculum, there’s the international scouting and domestic scouting department, liaising between international clubs and players with dual citizenship that play for these respective clubs. So there’s still a lot of things out there – including some coaching, maybe – that could make sense for me. So we’re talking and seeing what is the best fit for both parties.

PSW: From our perspective, one of the biggest successes of your tenure was looking in new places, at home but especially abroad, to grow and deepen the U.S. player pool. Could you talk more about that effort?

TR: I think even going back to my first [U-20] World Cup in ‘03, we were looking at players like Zak Whitbread and Frank Simek, players that nobody really had heard about, players that I had introduced domestically that nobody had heard about, like Clint Dempsey, even Charlie Davies. [Jonathan] Bornstein and Sascha Kljestan were unknowns in this country, never had any serious international experience, that I gave their first chance, and now some of them have become pretty valuable members of the senior team.

At the end of the day, I think that’s the most important thing: how many players can we push through to the next level? The latest crop will be Conor Doyle, Fabian Hertzler, Adrian Ruelas, Omar Salgado, be it Sean Johnson, even, that nobody knew about, our third-string goalkeeper during the World Cup in 2009. I am very proud of my track record of identifying players like Mikkel Diskerud, and the list goes on and on. I know I have value there and I hope that’s something we are discussing, and that I can maybe really bite my teeth into it in a full-time capacity.

PSW: Did you have a desire to continue in the U-20 head coach’s job, or was it a move you were also ready to make, personally?

TR: I still am a coach, first and foremost. Saying that, though, I thought it was probably the right decision. Just from a pure coaching standpoint, we didn’t qualify, so we didn’t fulfill our position, and that’s disappointing, that we didn’t get to a World Cup. And we set our sights, as an organization, very high. So I think if you just look at purely the results, then you say it probably is an appropriate move. If you say development maybe is still more important than winning at the Under-20 level, sure. But I totally respect and understand the decision that was made.

PSW: Do you have any interest in returning to MLS? If opportunities arise there, is that something you’d consider?

TR: I’m always on the short list of MLS teams – there are those within the soccer world who still value me as an important person…I identified players like [Ben] Olsen and other players that played with me on the Under-20s. I think I have a decent eye for talent. So you know, I think that’s something I wouldn’t put down, because I would like to put myself in that position where the next thing, whatever it might be, is something that I really see as a challenge, a good opportunity, and something I would enjoy. I think there’s several things out there that would make sense for me.

PSW: What are your thoughts on Tab Ramos, who is stepping in to lead the U-20s for the short term, at least?

TR: Tab was part of our qualifying staff -- if you talk about young, up-and-coming coaches that have a bright future, I put Tab Ramos in that group, with some other guys that have played in the past, be it John Harkes, who worked with me a few times and had a stint with the Red Bulls. Marcelo Balboa, even Eric Wynalda to a certain extent, who was on two [U-20] trips, because they all can contribute to a certain level. Now Tab is one of the few who really paid his dues, coached from Under-8s to Under-18s at an academy club, knows the grassroots level and has now gained the experience to be with us for a few trips.

I felt very strongly about bringing in former National Team players as part of our staffing, so our players have a real role model there. They have a guy that’s played in two or three World Cups and Olympics that they can look up to and say, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ So you take Tab Ramos, Dave van den Bergh, Timothy Regan was part of our staff as well – there are all these young coaches that I feel strongly need to be the next wave of coaches on a professional level, be it MLS or a youth national team level. Just look at Mike Sorber, Jesse Marsch, Jason Kreis – as we see a third crop of [U.S.] coaches. Some of my former assistant coaches like Frank Yallop, Dennis Hamlett, Curt Onalfo, Dave Sarachan have gone on and carved out some great careers.

I’ll say it again: we always must look at young coaches who have an interest in the game like Tab Ramos does, and cultivate that, give them valuable experience so that when the time comes for them to step in, hopefully they’re ready.