WASHINGTON -- Few things are as inspirational as an underdog sports movie, particularly one that's less about winning and more about personal journeys to prove self worth, such as Rocky just wanting to go the distance or Rudy just wanting to take the field.
Such is the feel of the new soccer documentary "Next Goal Wins," which made its U.S. premiere April 19 at the Tribeca Film Festival and screens in the Washington area for the first time Thursday night in Arlington and McLean.
It follows Thomas Rongen, who led D.C. United to an MLS Cup in 1999 before being asked by U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati to coach the team from American Samoa, which had suffered the worst loss in world soccer history -- 31-0 to Australia in 2011 -- and a decade later remained at the bottom of FIFA's world rankings.
Rongen flew to the South Pacific island with just three weeks to prepare his team for the World Cup qualifiers. He had his work cut out for him, with a team that had been outscored 292-2 over the past 17 years. Most of his players had never won a game.
"I looked at what I could influence in a short amount of time," Rongen says. "I knew if you look at the components of soccer, technically I wasn't going to make them a lot better. … But from a psychological standpoint, that's where I really knew we could make an impact. … We did a lot of team building and a lot of individual building, in terms of shedding the past, living in the present and living toward the future."
Rongen got to know his players the best way he knew how. He slept on the floor with them without mattresses. He woke them up at 4:30 a.m. to drive them to work eight hours on tuna boats. Afterward, they'd come back in the afternoon for grueling soccer practices.
High knees. Agility drills. And the motto: "Show me how to fight. I'll show you how to win."
The hard work paid off, as the World Cup qualifiers arrived.
"When we got together three hours before our first game against Tonga, I looked in their eyes and I saw a bunch of guys that really believed they could win."
Win they did, beating Tonga 2-1 -- scoring as many goals in that game as they had in the last 17 years. The game-winner was scored by a high school senior.
American Samoa went on to tie the Cook Islands, 1-1, before falling 1-0 to neighboring Samoa, with the potential tying goal bouncing off the post. With one win, one loss and one tie, the team just barely missed qualifying for the World Cup, but the sense of achievement was real.
"Nicky, the goalkeeper, after the game said, 'I can die a happy man. I can look my kid in the eye and my kid will say 'Daddy, you are a winner,'" Rongen said.
Rongen's former broadcasting partner, WTOP Sports Director Dave Johnson, put it best when he said, "This whole experience is like something from a script, but these movie-makers went in knowing this could end horrible again. There was no guarantee you accomplished what you accomplished."
That uncertainty melted away as British documentary directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison saw the "hook" of their movie while standing on the sidelines.
"After we scored the goal against Tonga, they actually said, 'We got something here. We might have a documentary here,'" Rongen said.
Brett and Jamison shot in digital 5k resolution using a RED Epic camera over two production visits, one of six weeks and another of eight weeks. While the on-field underdog story practically told itself, the off- the-field subplots added weight to the movie.
One of the team's best players, Jaiyah Saelua, was transgendered, or, as Polynesian culture calls it, the Fa'afafine, a third gender recognized in Samoa since the early 20th century. Jaiyah became the first ever Fa'afafine to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifying event. Rongen says this experience changed him, and he thinks the film's message of inclusion has already touched audiences at film festivals from New York to London.
"All these guys in suits at the end of the (movie) clapped, cheered, cried a little bit and talked about inclusivity and talked about acceptance and talked about how beautiful of an example this island and these people are. … The Fa'afafines have become very successful people in all areas, so why not in the athletic field?"
But Rongen says he most enjoyed watching his own team watch themselves up on the big screen.
"They are going through this incredible journey, not only during the movie, but also watching the movie, you can tell. The same with me -- it's emotional. It touches certain chords of human values. It's more than a sports or soccer movie … and we're going to Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, within the next few months to show it in its entirety to the island. I can't wait."
"Next Goal Wins" screens tonight (Thursday) at 7:30 at both the Ballston Common Stadium 12 in Arlington and the Tyson's Corner & IMAX theater in McLean. Click here for ticket information.
"It really is an inspirational underdog story, but it's more. It's about power of hope in the face of all odds and a real lesson of what it really means to be a winner."
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