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Next Goal Wins
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by Jay Seaver

"Because sometimes, great sports underdog stories actually happen."
4 stars

"Next Goal Wins" is an inspirational sports story that follows a familiar enough template that if it were fictional, we might be tempted to roll our eyes at just how far the filmmakers were pushing it. This kind of extreme-underdog story does occasionally happen, though, and one of the great things about sport is the way that it occasionally serves this kind of story up. The story of American Samoa's national team is a button-pushing crowd-pleaser, sure, but it's a darn good one.

The American Samoan side, you see, was infamously bad at soccer. They were 0-32 in FIFA-sanctioned matches, with the most infamous loss coming in 2001, when they lost to Australia 31-0, an absurd score for a game where the point totals are usually in the low single digits. The film picks up ten years later, with a volunteer coach attempting to lead this team of amateurs in their first international competition in for years. When that doesn't go so well, they turn to help from the US Soccer Association, which helps them hire fiery Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, who helps recruit Samoan-American Rawlston Masantai & soldier Ramin Ott to join captain Liatama Amisone Jr., Jaiyah "Johnny" Saelua, and redemption-seeking goalkeeper Nicky Salapu.

It's easy to forget just how difficult sports can be at the highest levels, not just for spectators but for the coaches. There are a ton of laughs to be found in how both Rongen and volunteer coach Larry Mena'o react with mounting levels of frustration and profanity, not having realized just how far below their expectations a national team could fall (amusingly, the parents who brought their young soccer-playing kids to the screening I attended did not anticipate the amount of swearing involved). It's what makes Salapu kind of a fascinating story; he's probably the best player in his Seattle rec league, for example, and during the clips of various matches, the commentators almost seem sorry for him, implying he's a good keeper who is not helped by a porous defense or being just a cut below the pro-quality guys he's facing. It helps firmly establish what a lot of sports movies can't, that just making a respectable show against some of these other teams is in some ways just as good as a victory.

Saupu isn't the only interesting story to be found among the subjects of Next Goal Wins; there must have been times when directors Mike Brett and Chris Jamison must have felt like they hit some sort of jackpot of people with movie-worthy storylines. Some do a particularly fine job of highlighting the situation in American Samoa, whether the aftermath of a devastating tsunami or how many of the young men on this island such as Ott find that the only real opportunity available to him is joining the American military. Some are closer to pure sports stories, such as Salapu's desire for redemption or how former college player Masantai, while he takes pride in representing his grandfather's homeland, is also hoping to make an impression on a pro team somewhere. There's a continuing thread about Jaiyah, whose identify cards read "third gender"; being transgendered is apparently not nearly so stigmatized in the Pacific island cultures as in the west, but she is still a fairly unusual personality to be dropped into the middle of this sort of environment or film.

Brett & Jamison keep much of the attention firmly on the Samoans and their attempt to acclimate to Rongen's more intense style, but he winds up being a worthy story in his own right. A weathered man in his fifties, he and his wife have recently lost their daughter, and it turns out that a team full of young amateurs may be just what he needs, even if it's the sort of group he is not used to dealing with. The filmmakers point out that American Samoa is a very religious territory while Rongen has reason to be more cynical than the typical atheist, but they don't try to great that narrative onto what winds up being a very nice story about the place, the players, and the job thawing him out. It's an impressive job of assembling all of these storylines without feeling like any have been sidelined or overemphasized, while still leaving time for the games of the World Cup qualifiers against Tonga, the Cook Islands, and Samoa to be exciting soccer to watch, as well as the answer to whether American Samoa can break their streak.

The answer to that question is probably not going to be a huge surprise, although if the makers of this sort of movie have done their job right, the how of it is just as important and there's a connection to the people involved. In this case, they found a sorry that doesn't need much embellishing and are able to get just what makes it a great sports story across.

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originally posted: 03/05/14 12:58:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/18/14 Girardi Christiane A voir pour comprendre nos différences, histoire très touchante 5 stars
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Directed by
  Mike Brett
  Steve Jamison

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