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American Samoa banish demons, eye World Cup

By Greg Stutchbury

(Reuters) - As his players were plunging into ice baths, getting massages and heading to a restaurant to celebrate Thanksgiving, American Samoa coach Thomas Rongen was plotting ways to complete one of the most remarkable turnarounds in international soccer.

Rongen's team won their first international match on Tuesday, 2-1 over Tonga, to end a run of 30 successive losses including a record 31-0 rout at the hands of Australia.

Following their 1-1 draw with the Cook Islands Thursday, American Samoa will now play Samoa Saturday with the winner advancing to the second round of Oceania's 2014 World Cup qualifying competition.

Instead of joining his players from the U.S. protectorate in celebrating the national holiday, Rongen opted to watch Samoa draw 1-1 with Tonga in Apia Thursday.

"This team literally walked into games saying: 'If we can keep it to under 10-0 then that's a great thing,'" Rongen told Reuters by telephone from Apia.

"I told them to forget the past, we're living in the present and this team slowly began to believe they can compete and the win has done miracles.

"I have to credit the guys, who have worked their butts off and put themselves in a position in which they have won a game, tied a game and are playing for the championship."

Rongen, a former Ajax Amsterdam player who has carved out a coaching career in the United States, has only been with the team for three weeks and he said while the standard was "the lowest level I have ever seen in international football," he felt they had improved in the time they had spent together.

"I was literally shocked at the (skill) levels, but we have come a long way in those three weeks," said Rongen, who was given the job as part of an informal agreement between U.S. Soccer and the American Samoa federation.

"There is some raw talent there and (while) ... you can't make them technically proficient overnight, if you can instill some discipline and some organization, particularly some structure defensively, then the foundation of the pyramids can be built on."

A small country of about 70,000 more renowned for producing rugby and American football players, American Samoa had conceded 229 goals for the 12 they scored in their 30 previous internationals in 17 years.

The victory over Tonga had banished their demons, said Rongen.

"It has been quite a ride for this small nation, to get rid of these demons and deep emotional scars, particularly for one player (Nicky Salapu) who was in goal in the 31-0 loss to Australia," he added.

"He can now look at himself, his team mates and his children. The only reason why he kept coming back was to erase that bad memory and to get a win.

"What we have gained now internationally, you can't buy that kind of respect. We have got the snowball rolling now and I hope the people realize that you can get better if you invest in the right places." (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford)