(Photo Credit OFC Media via VFF American Samoa coach David Jones (left) oversees his side at the OFC Men’s U-19 Championship Qualifier in Vanuatu)

American Samoa face an uphill battle to rise from a lowly 189th in the FIFA world rankings, but they can find inspiration from the epic journey of new head coach David Jones.

The American-based Englishman, who has only been in the role for the senior and U-19 men’s teams for a month, describes his personal adventure in football as one of perseverance. That’s something of an understatement.

The Manchester United product played in Hong Kong, Spain, the United Kingdom and – for one game – in the United States. One of the UK’s youngest-ever player-managers – for Rugby Town F.C. in the Northern Premier League back in 1996 – he signed to play for the New York MetroStars in 2000.

But in his very first Major League Soccer match against the Miami Fusion Jones went up for a header, landed awkwardly with no one around him and tore his ACL. Professional playing career over.

Six years later he joined the United States Army as a 38-year-old, quickly underwent basic training in Oklahoma and was deployed to Iraq in 2007, serving as a combat medic.

(David Jones coached the American Samoa U-19 side at the OFC Men’s U-19 Championship Qualifying in Vanuatu)

Jones spent eight years in the US military and was tapped on the shoulder to coach the United States at the 4th Military Olympic Games in Hyderabad, India. He also took the US women to the Military World Cup in Ede, Netherlands.

HIs coaching career kicked up a notch when he hooked up with Atherton Laburnum Rovers during a stint back in the UK in 2018 and his international career now covers three countries. He was a technical advisor to the US Virgin Islands in 2014, recently advised Belize for six months and had been on American Samoa’s radar for the past year before securing the role as Head Coach following a meeting of the minds with Football Federation American Samoa (FFAS) CEO Tavita Taumua and former coach Thomas Rongen in Las Vegas.

Now he is following in the footsteps of Dutch-American Rongen, the central figure in the 2014 documentary Next Goal Wins and the Taika Waititi movie of the same name starring Michael Fassbender.

Rongen himself, now a football commentator for CBS Sports and beIN Sports, is back in the American Samoa mix as a technical advisor and Jones is stoked to have his support as he strives to overcome the many challenges facing football in the southern-most US territory.

“It’s a small nation, with only about fifty thousand people, and football isn’t in their DNA,” Jones said. “The biggest obstacle is turning around the mentality and culture because winning isn’t part of their history.

“I’m optimistic that we can build a platform to enhance our game by making small improvements – earning corners, generating more shots on goal and retaining possession – but it’s fair to say we’ll be facing teams with many more resources at their disposal.”

That’s where Jones believes Next Goal Wins has a part to play.

“The movie wasn’t very well received on the island because it made American Samoa look as if they were incompetent and it didn’t go down too well,” Jones said.

“But it’s a comedy based on whatever comedic value the makers were trying to strike with their poetic licence and I’m not sick of fielding questions about the movie because it highlights the need for better infrastructure and support from the United States.

“American Samoa has the largest military recruitment rate (per capita) in the whole of the United States. On the island you either work in a tuna factory or join the military.

“Part of the problem is that American Samoans don’t automatically secure US citizenship or a passport, so in order to travel they need to get that US passport. That shrinks our catchment area compared to other nations because these guys go to the breadth of America and the FFAS has no means to track them. They’re lost to us.

“Our right back here at the Under-19 qualifiers in Vanuatu – 15-year-old Kody Savelio – I found through my military connections. And I have fifteen guys off island ready to come in to our senior team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. So, finding and identifying these players means our teams can become much more competitive.

“The Cook Islands can call on New Zealand, Tahiti has France in its corner, but the United States doesn’t really support American Samoa and I’d like that to change for the better.”

Jones is conscious he has to tread carefully when it comes to initiating necessary change.

“I appreciate I have to be uber-sensitive about communicating messages – how things are said and presented,” he said.

“But my biggest message revolves around trust. I want my players to know they can trust me to have their back. If they show me they’re committed, I’ll show them how to win.

“I’m not expecting miracles, but I do want us to be competitive and go into matches as prepared as possible and understand what we’re trying to do.

“I don’t want eleven players behind the ball. I want to work on a couple of set pieces and impart possession-based learning – becoming a little more confident on the ball, a little bit more confident in each other as team mates and a little bit more confident in what I’m asking the players to do.”

Jones is already seeing positive signs in the short amount of time he has been with the U-19s at the OFC Men’s U-19 Championships – Qualifying, which has just finished in Vanuatu.

He only met his team for the first time at Easter and the few short weeks before the tournament was no time to coach fitness, only the basics.

“I really believe these guys are improving. We lost to Vanuatu 4-nil when the goal difference is usually ten, eleven or twelve and against the Cook Islands we should’ve won (instead of suffering a 3-2 loss).”

It was a similar situation in a 4-3 loss to Tonga to conclude the tournament. If VAR had been in operation two of the Tongan goals may have been overturned – one for offside and the other for handball.

“I’m not denigrating the officials because without them we don’t have a game, but anyone can see that we were desperately unlucky on four occasions and that had a major bearing on the results of those matches,” Jones said.

“The problem is that referees don’t have anybody to answer to. They make a decision, or don’t make a decision, and then go about their day without realising the consequences it has on everybody else.

“All the hard work we put in is ruined because these guys can’t do their job properly.”

There’s no doubt Jones is passionate about his job and the game itself. His sideline exhortations were picked up clearly in the FIFA+ livestream and he was yellow carded on the sideline in the 86th minute of the loss to the Cook Islands.

He delivers a wry laugh when asked if his passion sometimes gets the better of him: “I live and breathe the game. I just want a fair playing field for these guys so they know if they put effort in that they can achieve positive outcomes.

“I really believe these guys are improving. There’s definite progress. What they’ve lacked in discipline and organisation will be overcome and I’m hopeful they can go and keep improving.

“If the FFAS can take on board some of the ideas I have to improve the infrastructure, (bearing in mind) the difficulties I’m starting to realise we have, we can only get better.

“I’m ambitious and want to be successful, but I’m a realist. The island’s phenomenal and the people are amazing but we have to develop a passion for the game.

“Right now it’s American Football, volleyball and other sports like rugby. Soccer is only the third or fourth sport the islanders turn to.”

But if Jones, who holds dual nationality and has been in the United States for 23 years, is successful in securing more support from US football powerbrokers, his outcomes for the nation may just match his passion and enthusiasm.

Then it will be a case of New Coach Wins.