Glory days for soccer in tiny American Samoa

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APIA, SAMOA (AP) - Two days after winning for the first time in its soccer history, American Samoa stretched its unbeaten run to two games.

After Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Tonga, American Samoa drew 1-1 with the Cook Islands on Thursday. Another win against rival Samoa on Saturday will put the U.S. protectorate into the second round of World Cup qualifying in the Oceania region.

“We made it very hard for ourselves again but we got the result we needed to make the game against Samoa, who I consider the best team here, a meaningful contest,” said American Samoa coach Thomas Rongen, a former veteran MLS coach who used to coach the U.S. Under-20 team. “It’s going to be great _ Samoa and American Samoa is like a dream matchup.”

The team has also gained international attention because one of its players, defender Johnny Saelua, is a fa’afafine _ a biological male raised as a female. Fa’afafines are common in Samoan culture and are often considered a third gender.

“He’s been a member of the team for a number of years,” Taumua said. “Yes, he’s fa’afafine but he’s a man and he plays as a man.”

Saelua also represented American Samoa in previous qualifying tournaments.

“I’ve really got a female starting at center back,” Rongen said. “Can you imagine that in England or Spain?”

American Samoa entered this year’s qualifying campaign with 30 straight losses in international soccer, including a record 31-0 loss to Australia in a 2001 World Cup qualifier. Overall, the team had been outscored 229-12.

In World Cup qualifying, the team lost all 12 of its matches before this year with a minus-127 goal difference, 129-2.

All that changed with Tuesday’s win, and Thursday’s draw has added to the hopes that the team can move on for the first time.

“Our game plan was to win but the draw has gotten us to four points and puts us into a position on Saturday to play for a championship,” Rongen said. “I think we should have put the game away in the first half and scored two or three with the chances we had.”

Shalom Luani scored for American Samoa in the 24th minute. But in the 62nd, defender Tala Luvu headed a free kick from Paavo Mustonen into his own net.

American Samoa is tied for the worst team in the FIFA rankings _ in 204th place with Andorra, Montserrat, Samoa and San Marino.

A small island in the south Pacific that is known more for the American football players it produces, American Samoa has a population of about 55,000. But Tuesday’s win elevated the country to almost star status in soccer circles.

“It’s been quite amazing really,” Football Federation of American Samoa general secretary Tavita Taumua said. “We’ve had people telephoning us, emailing us, congratulating us on our first win. Getting that first win was a big thing for us. Now we’re looking forward to Saturday’s game against Samoa.”

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