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U.S. Men's National Team

Thomas Rongen Recalls Bringing John Brooks to U.S.

The former coach of the U.S. U-20 men's team watched with pride as some of his former players starred against Paraguay, most notably 23-year-old German-American defender John Brooks.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 14, 2016
8:25 PM

WHEN THOMAS RONGEN watched the United States men's national team defeat Paraguay on Saturday night in one of the team’s best moments ever on home soil, he did so with a significant amount of pride. After all, it was during his tenure as U-20 head coach that many of the featured players made their entry into the U.S. program.

The Man of the Match in that game was John Brooks, who was completely dominant on the backline and has been one of the best defenders in the Copa America Centenario. His journey to the U.S. team began in 2010 when he accepted a call-up to play for the U.S. U-20 for a camp in Peru.

Finding Brooks, however, took a lot of luck and it began when U.S. U-20 midfielder Bryan Arguez was sold from D.C. United to Hertha Berlin.

"If Bryan Arguez doesn't get sold from D.C. United to Hertha Berlin, Brooks probably would have fallen by the wayside. I knew some players in Germany, like Julian Green, and I had just discovered Mix Diskerud. So I convinced Sunil [Gulati] to give me some money to go to Europe and look at some players. I had not made the connection yet at Hertha until I got a phone call from Bryan, who said, 'Coach, there's three Americans on this team.' And I was like, 'What are you talking about?'"

Arguez was referring to John Brooks, Terrence Boyd, and Jerome Kiesewetter. Rongen used his new scouting budget to schedule a trip to watch them play. Brooks was the youngest of the three and only 16.  Over the years, Rongen had assembled a long list of players based abroad—many were dual-nationals who grew up abroad—that he wanted to evaluate. As he continued to talk to people, the list continued to grow.

Rongen recalls that many of the players had limited upside, and in those instances "we would shake hands and part ways." Brooks were clearly a cut above, however, and after a series of discussions with Brooks and his family, Rongen decided to invite the tall central defender to the U-20 camp in Peru.

"I am telling you, after the first day of practice in Peru I look at my two assistant coaches and said, 'He is going to be the best center back for the United States—ever,” Rongen recalled. “I know it's a bold statement but he had certain attributes physically that we don't have: comfortable on the ball, had a great range, and was very tactically astute for his age.

"As a left-footer, he reminded me of a better version of Carlos Bocanergra. Having a left-footer is such a luxury. At that time he was already a very good tackler of the ball and tackling is an art. We just don't have many American players that know how to tackle properly. He can tackle the ball and come up with it and maintain possession. We don't teach that. Just like heading because it's a no-no in our country."

In a 2013 interview with American Soccer Now, Brooks himself citied Rongen’s initial involvement as a significant factor why he decided to choose the United States over Germany. While the German national team is a tough team to make, Brooks was still very much on the radar for German youth national teams and he once played for the German U-20 team. His heart, however, was always with the United States and Rongen’s efforts to get to know him personally was a factor.  

"Yes it was important," Brooks said of Rongen’s visits with him and his family before the U-20 call-up. "I always said the nation who called me up first is the nation who really wants me. Thomas Rongen talked a lot to me. We wrote emails. It was nice.”

Once Rongen determined whether a player was a fit for the program, a big part of the equation when introducing a dual-national into the program was to get to know him and see if he wanted to play for the United States for the right reasons.

When looking at Brooks’ situation, Rongen came away impressed at his enthusiasm and was convinced that it was crucial to get Brooks involved. In the end, Brooks was not able to contribute much to the U-20 team due to Hertha Berlin’s unwillingness to release him but merely getting him involved was a important to Rongen.

"Nowadays there are a lot of mercenaries in international football, thinking, 'Where do I have the better chance?' I wanted to look them in the eye and talk to their parents,” Rongen said. “I did this with every one of these players. Some didn't speak very good English. It was a due diligence test. I feel that, in the end of the day, you want to develop your own players. I feel very strongly about that. But I also feel that if you can get a guy who can become one of the best players on your national team and your best center back, absolutely you need to do that.

"I talked to him [on his subsequent German U-20 appearance] and he said he felt somewhat of a moral obligation to try it,” Rongen added. “But he always said his heart was with the U.S. These kids love the American culture, American music, Brooks has American tattoos. He generally loves this country for all the reasons kids do throughout the world.

"But he also really wants to play and contribute on the highest level."

And Brooks is now just doing that. His game-winning goal against Ghana at the 2014 World Cup was a significant moment not just for Brooks but for the national team. But 2016 is different: Before Copa America Centenario, it was unclear if he Brooks was a surefire starter. Now he is not only starting but also anchoring the backline and emerging as one of the team’s best players.

Following the win over Paraguay, Brooks earned accolades from Jurgen Klinsmann, his teammates, and many other people close to the program.

“He was the deserved man of the match,” former U.S. national team central defender Jay DeMerit said. “You look in these type of games where you need to win and you need defenders to step up. It started with his break of the 3v1. He only grew from there. Centerbacks are all about pairings and being paired with Geoff [Cameron], the whole tournament they've been great. John is stepping into this role as [maybe] the lead centerback of this team. That's a place where I think he should be.”

Klinsmann's comments after the game echoed similar sentiments. 

“This is a big statement what he did tonight," Klinsmann said. "I am just impressed by the learning curve that a younger player has to go through. You're just happy for that process. A year ago a lot of people were very critical of him. I said that he just has to have those experiences. He needs to make mistakes in order to grow. There is no growth without failure for anybody. He grew—that performance from John was really something special.”

Rongen was fired as the U.S. U-20 coach in 2011 after his team failed to make the World Cup. Still, he remains an interested observer whenever the U.S. plays. It is often said that the real success of a U-20 team is not known until years after a cycle is completed—when you can see how many players progress to the senior team.

In that regard, the Copa America Centenario has been very rewarding for Rongen. In addition to Brooks, four of Rongen's former U-20 players featured against Paraguay: Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, and Alejandro Bedoya.

Rongen said that he Brooks holds a special place for him. 

“I can’t say I developed him but I did recognize talent," Rongen said. "I am so happy for him because he’s a great, great kid. He’s a great man right now and he played like a man Saturday. That was my job at the U-20 level. Winning is important but it’s about bringing guys in and getting them to the next level like the Olympic team and the senior team.

"When you see a guy playing at 16 and realizing he was going to be one of our best players, it’s pretty cool.”

Brian Sciaretta is an ASN 100 panelist and a contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter

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