Rowdies hire former Tampa Bay Mutiny coach

click to enlarge Steve Ralston. -
Steve Ralston.

In 1994, Thomas Rongen used to venture over to the campus of Florida International University to watch Steve Ralston compete for the college's soccer team. Rongen saw Ralston score many of the 19 goals that would ultimately lead the nation in NCAA Division I competition that year. Rongen, who was coaching the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the former North American Soccer League at the time, knew he had discovered a difference-maker in the game.

Thus, when Rongen was hired to lead the Tampa Bay Mutiny as one of the 10 original franchises of Major League Soccer, he hoped he might be able to acquire Ralston in the 1996 MLS Collegiate Draft. Despite Raltson's stellar campaign in 1994, his 1995 season was derailed due to injuries, although Ralston had scored 13 goals and assisted on 11 others before being lost for the year.

Whether the injuries scared teams off or not, Rongen doesn't know, but what he does recall is Ralston slipping into the second round, where the Mutiny wisely selected him as the 18th player taken overall. The choice turned into a steal.

Ralson would team up with MLS MVP Carlos Valderrama and high-scoring forward Roy Lassiter to win the inaugural MLS Supporters' Shield, given to the team with the best regular season record. Not only did Ralston win the MLS Rookie of the Year, he would go on to be the league's all-time career leader in assists at the time of his retirement in 2010.

This type of player identification is the main reason the Tampa Bay Rowdies selected Rongen as their new head coach, which the team announced on Wednesday afternoon.

“He has the ability to understand players, their psychological makeup, how they fit with one another that makes him into an excellent leader,” said Rowdies President and General Manager Farrukh Quraishi, who was the President and GM of the Mutiny when Rongen earned the MLS Coach of the Year Award. “He was able to blend big personalities like Carlos Valderrama and [Roy] Lassiter and create chemistry with younger players. He recognized each player's skill set and knew how to get 

click to enlarge Rongen, seen here with Rowdies Assistant General Manager Perry Van Der Beck and Rowdies President and General Manager Farruk Quraishi. -
Rongen, seen here with Rowdies Assistant General Manager Perry Van Der Beck and Rowdies President and General Manager Farruk Quraishi.
the best out of each of them.”

Quraishi also emphasized Rongen's penchant for an up-tempo style of play, which Rongen hopes to use to spark a Rowdies' offense that produced an NASL league-best 163 shots, but just 36 goals last season under former coach Ricky Hill.

Rongen, who played for Ajax Amsterdam before moving to the US to play in the NASL where he won Rookie of the Year, won the 1999 MLS Cup as the head coach for DC United. He also was the first head coach and sporting director for Chivas USA in Los Angeles.

More recently, Rongen has served as the head coach and director of the United States Under-20 Men's National Team for nine years. During this span, he also coached the American Samoa Men's National Team, most known for losing 30 consecutive games over 17 years and suffering a record 31-0 defeat to Australia.

Rongen guided American Samoa to a win against Tonga in a World Cup qualifying game, which was documented in Next Goal Wins, released earlier this year.

While Rongen won't have to become a miracle worker for the Rowdies, he does hope to acquire players that will simulate a similar style to the Mutiny team that helped fill Buccaneer Stadium back in the day.

“That team [the Mutiny] was built on the axis with a creative, flamboyant player like Carlos and I hope to create something similar hear,” said Rongen, who anticipates using a 4-3-3 formation. “We want to have an entertaining, attacking brand of soccer that fans will appreciate and that will produce many goals which will ultimately translate into wins. To do that, we need to acquire players with a great level of athleticism and with an attacking midfielder in the mold of a Valderrama.”

Like his days in Fort Lauderdale, Rongen, 58, will also make use of scouting area soccer teams for talent, including Eckerd College, University of South Florida, and University of Tampa.

“It's important to have a mix of players, internationally, and with homegrown talent that fans can relate to,” Rongen said.

In conjunction with the coaching hire, the Rowdies also announced the release of midfielders Kyle Clinton and Evans Frimpong, defender Jordan Gafa, and goalkeeper Ryan Thompson, leaving the team with just eight signed players — 2013 NASL MVP Georgi Hristov, forwards Brian Shriver and Corey Hertzog, midfielder Shane Hill, defenders Tamika Mkandawire, Blake Wagner, and Frankie Sanfilippo, and goalkeeper Matt Pickens.

The openings leave an opportunity for Rongen and Quraishi to build a team to their liking.

“This (coaching) is what I live for,” Rongen said. “This is where I get to take what I know and translate it over to the players to help lead and guide them. I relish being in the trenches and I'm excited about what's in store next year and beyond.”


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