Work in Sports
Big shoes to fill
Rongen looks to carry on winning ways in D.C.
Posted: Friday October 29, 1999 08:36 PM
By Jeff Green, CNN/SI
ATLANTA -- Thomas Rongen took the head coaching job at Major League Soccer's D.C. United with some very big shoes to fill.
Rongen, 43, joined the team in Fort Lauderdale last December, waiting in the wings as Bruce Arena led the club to victory in the Interamerican Cup over South America champion Vasco da Gama. The game was Arena's last with United before taking over the U.S. national team.
Arena had led D.C. United to three straight MLS Cups, winning the first two and also taking the 1996 U.S. Open Cup. Arena's United set the standard by which the rest of the league's clubs would be judged. The former leader of a dynasty at the University of Virginia left with a coaching record of 87-37-1 in all competitions at D.C.
Rongen, meanwhile, won coach of the year honors in 1996, the league's first season, after going 20-12 with the Tampa Bay Mutiny. He then joined the New England Revolution in the offseason, earning a playoff appearance with a 15-17 record in 1997. He resigned from the Revolution the following August, and the team failed to make the playoffs.
Four months later, he stepped into the top coaching spot in the league. Since then, Rongen has led D.C. United to a 23-9 record with 57 points and a third-straight regular-season title.
The year was not without it's minor bumps -- or learning experiences, as Rongen describes them -- including a loss to the second-division Charleston Battery that knocked the team out of the U.S. Open Cup and a loss to Mexico's Necaxa in the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
After an 11-game MLS winning streak in the second half of the year, D.C. lost its last two games at home -- and lost its appearance of invincibility in the process. But for the second straight year, United took just two games to dispose of a scrappy Miami Fusion in the first round of the playoffs.
Rongen: "If it ain't broke don't fix it"
How did Rongen avoid a major letdown after Arena's departure?
"It's fairly simple, really. The keys to success, the foundation was laid there already. For me, it was just trying to maintain that and take it to a higher level," Rongen said. "Philosophically, nothing has changed in the club. I think Bruce and I think very similarly about the game. There are some nuances here and there that we might differ about. But also, always, we attack. We're a pressing team. We going to try to force mistakes, try to score goals. So I think the group had no problems with the change, because there weren't really any changes made; there weren't really any changes needed."
In addition to Arena, however, the team had to deal with the loss of two key players in the offseason.
"The only thing that we had to overcome was the loss of Tony Sanneh [to Germany's Hertha Berlin] and John Harkes [to New England], two pivotal players, and to try and incorporate some of the younger players," Rongen said. "I think the young players did a good job of doing that, and the older players... We've had some players who have stepped up when they had to. I really just brought my own natural personality to the team, which is fairly relaxed."
Does he keep his players on a tight leash, with a curfew on the road during the playoffs?
"No, we've never done that and we're never going to do that. It proves that they can accept that freedom and deal with it in a professional manner, which they can," Rongen said. "If they come to play every game, then there's no need to change that. Both on and off the field, it was business as usual. And when you win games, then the whole transition becomes flawless."
What is it that has allowed D.C. such a greater level of success than either of the other team's Rongen has coached?
"It's quite a few differences," Rongen said. "One starts with -- which I think is very important -- a great training facility, which both New England and Tampa don't offer."
'It's all about players'
Rongen also credited the United front office.
"[D.C. has] some very shrewd people, both on the playing side and on the front-office side, good knowledge of the game. [United GM] Kevin Payne being one of the brightest minds in soccer, I think, when it comes to dealing with players and trading and identifying players," he said.
"It's all about the players in this game. Coaches don't make players; it's more the other way around," he said. "We just guide and then try to create the best environment in which the team can excel and do well. Because of a good foundation, again, it becomes fairly simple."
Despite the loss of Harkes and Sanneh, Rongen had the luxury of inheriting some of the league's top stars: the Bolivian duo of midfielder Marco Etheverry, the league's MVP in 1998, and forward Jaime Moreno, the team's MVP this year; rising national team flanker Ben Olsen, MLS rookie of the year in '98; high-scoring forward Roy Lassiter; and national team defenders Eddie Pope and Carlos Llamosa.
Another of United's national team defenders, Jeff Agoos, says it has been a work in progress.
"It is something that we have worked toward every year," he said. "We want to get better with every game and every month... It started out a little dicey in the inaugural year with a 16-16 record, but we came through in the playoffs.
"It has been a nice ride from there but we know we can't rest on that. We want to prove ourselves not only against the clubs in MLS but also the rest of world."
Rongen brings United a combination of familiarity with the American mentality and experience with one of Europe's top clubs.
Born in Amsterdam, Rongen began his playing career as a defender and midfielder with Dutch club Ajax. He moved to the U.S. in 1979 to play for the NASL's Los Angeles Aztecs with boyhood idol Johan Cruyff. The two played together the following season with the Washington Diplomats before Rongen joined the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1981. Rongen went on to coach the Strikers in the leagues that succeeded the NASL, in addition to coaching Miami's Nova Southeastern University.
So it was back to his longtime home to finish off his first playoff series with United, holding the Fusion to a scoreless draw and winning 3-2 in a six-round shootout.
D.C. vs. Columbus -- again
If top-seeded D.C. goes into Columbus Crew Stadium for Game 2 with an edge in the Eastern Conference finals, it's not likely to come out with all guns blazing. Rongen acknowledged playing conservatively and going for a shootout win in Fort Lauderdale, saying the pressure was on the home team with the series already tilted in D.C.'s favor.
"If we've got to win ugly, we'll win ugly," he said.
After that match, Rongen questioned his own hesitation to make substitutions, having waited until the 86th and 89th minutes to bring on forward A.J. Wood and defender Geoff Aunger.
"I've got to look at myself and maybe think about making some changes," Rongen said. "We looked at Chris [Albright], we looked at Jason, we looked at A.J. at some particular times, but we just felt to stay with what we had out there. But in retrospect maybe you make some changes for fresher legs."
History is certainly on Rongen's side as he prepares to lead D.C. against the Crew -- the third-straight time the teams have squared off for a ticket to MLS Cup. The Crew has never come out on top.
United defeated the Crew in each of their four meetings this year, though never by more than a goal. Columbus has never won at RFK, losing each of its 11 tries. United is 16-5 all-time against the Crew.
But in the Crew's view, the rivalry between the two teams is unmatched in MLS and the gap between thems has narrowed each year.
"Their arrogance won't allow them to see it that way,'' Crew coach Tom Fitzgerald told the Columbus Dispatch this week. "Who cares what they think?''
In the first game against the Crew, Rongen will not have the services of suspended defensive midfielder Richie Williams, who is likely to be replaced by Aunger. Llamosa has not been practicing and remains questionable with a strained knee ligament. Argentine right back Diego Sonora has signed a temporary extension to his contract and will remain with the team at least through the end of the season.
Whether or not United makes a fourth straight trip to MLS Cup, the off-season is bound to bring still more changes to Rongen's club.
The team owes "future considerations" to the Fusion for the trade that sent promising young forward Chris Albright to D.C. this season. According the Fusion managing director Doug Hamilton, his team will receive an "impact" player from United's roster. Albright, meanwhile, tore a knee ligament in practice Tuesday and will miss two to three months of action.
Sonora may not return, and Lassiter is demanding a raise from MLS despite the fact that he is under contract.
Rongen, for one, is staying put. He recently signed a two-year extension.