For most countries, a total of one point and one goal scored from five games would represent nothing but complete disaster. However, American Samoa are not most countries, and the spirited performances of the islands’ youngsters at the recent Oceania under-20 Championship in Fiji have offered hope for the team’s future – not least due to the emergence of promising forward Ryan Paaga.
The American Samoans’ performances and results in their opening two games will have particularly pleased coach Rupeni Luvu, providing hope that Thomas Rongen’s legacy with the senior team, one of higher professionalism and fitness levels that led to the team almost emerging from their preliminary qualifying group for the World Cup, can be replicated by all of the islands’ teams. Luvu’s boys kicked off the tournament in the Fijian capital with a 4-0 defeat, against the hosts and eventual winners, all the goals coming in the first half. Fiji would go on to qualify for the FIFA under-20 World Cup finals (with New Zealand automatically qualifying as hosts), making this result seem almost respectable.
However, very few would have foreseen American Samoa holding Papua New Guinea, coached by Oceania Footballer of the Century Wynton Rufer, to a draw two days later. The underdogs drew first blood through Sinisa Tua in first-half stoppage time, but they could well have had a penalty after just five minutes when Paaga went down under PNG goalkeeper Koniel Vagi’s challenge after racing through on goal. PNG’s blushes were somewhat spared by Frederick Simongi’s equaliser on the hour but despite having Rafael Rocha sent off late on for scrapping with a PNG substitute, American Samoa held on for a historic result: it is the first time they have avoided defeat in an under-20 game.
Unfortunately, Luvu’s charges ran out of steam somewhat in the second half of the tournament, going down 4-0 to Vanuatu on 27th May and 5-0 to the Solomon Islands two days after that, although two of the Solomons’ goals were scored in the last 15 minutes. In their final game against New Caledonia, American Samoa were thrashed 9-0, though five of those goals were leaked in the second half as tiredness kicked in. That result may taint the success of the Papua New Guinea game, but it is clear that progress has been made: with the portly but likable Frederick Maiava between the posts, the under-20s set a national record for the longest time without conceding – 103 minutes across the second half of the Fiji game and the first hour against PNG.
Ryan Paaga epitomises this progress as much as anyone. Athletically gifted and with the raw skill to trouble defences, Paaga was American Samoa’s biggest goal threat throughout the tournament and can consider himself unfortunate not to have returned home with a first international goal to his name. If promising sportsmen like Paaga offer the biggest opportunity to the Football Federation American Samoa (FFAS), they also represent the biggest threat. The seventeen-year-old is equally gifted at rugby sevens and it is clear that the FFAS will have to do battle with the islands’ other sports federations to secure his services for future internationals.
Indeed, Paaga says the FFAS wasted little time in drafting him into the squad for Fiji upon his return from a rugby tournament in Hong Kong, but he regrets that his sporting versatility makes it difficult to focus on one code in particular: “When I came back from Hong Kong the soccer federation contacted me to select me for this team…[I’ve] never really played soccer much…it’s tough for me because so many people want me to play rugby for their team, so I don’t get time to practice my soccer skills as much.”
Aside from the impressiveness of Paaga performing the most difficult role at the tournament – lone striker in a team that often strings every other outfield player across their own penalty area – so admirably, it shows that the FFAS faces almost a sporting cannibalism from the islands’ other governing bodies. Last year fellow forward and then-seventeen-year-old Shalom Luani starred as the senior team claimed their first ever international win, a 2-1 success over Tonga, and Luani’s two goals in the three-game World Cup qualifying series made him the country’s joint-top all-time scorer. The parallels to Paaga are uncanny, and Luani’s time is similarly divided between football and American football, though recently it seems the second sport is dominating his engagements.
Luani moved to Chabot College of California in 2012 and Paaga has also admitted his desire to win a scholarship to the U.S. mainland. Though it would be wrong to stand in the youngsters’ way as they seek to further their careers in a more competitive environment, the diaspora of the islands’ talent represents a big headache for the FFAS; getting players back from the mainland to play in friendlies or qualifiers is difficult financially and logistically.
For now at least, Luvu and FFAS chairman Tavita Taumua will be pleased that the leaps achieved by Rongen are now being replicated at youth levels. A pairing of Paaga and Luani in attack would trouble any defence in the region and, with a blend of experience and promise behind them, is surely the way forward. It will be years before American Samoa can truly challenge for World Cup qualification, but if regular games are scheduled, and if the FFAS can promote football above the islands’ other sports, the 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001 that has haunted this team for so long can finally be consigned to the history books.