Wellington, New Zealand (AP) The return of the American Samoa women’s team to the World Cup qualifying competition for the first time in 20 years has been both a national and a family celebration.
The team is competing with three others at the Oceania Women’s Nations Cup in Fiji, the first stage of a qualifying process which will eventually involve all 11 Oceania member nations and will find the confederation’s representative at next year’s women’s soccer World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
American Samoa’s two-decade absence from World Cup competition and 11-year absence from Oceania tournaments is due in large part to its struggle to field a competitive team in a nation with a population of only 55,000.
The team’s return is largely due to the efforts of Seattle-based coach Larry Mana’o, who scouted a number of players living in the United States who are eligible to play for the Pacific Island nation.
Ten of Mana’o’s squad of 18 players are based in the United States, but his roster also includes three of his daughters and a niece, making the team’s participation in the Nations Cup a family affair.Sisters Alma, Ava and Severina Mana’o are joined in the current American Samoa squad by cousin Haleigh Mana’o.
Larry Mana’o enjoys the rare distinction of having coached both male and female teams in World Cup qualifying competitions. The national men’s team had a 31-0 loss to Australia in World Cup qualifying in 2002 – an unenviable world record. A decade later, the country achieved its first-ever international victory.
Of the U.S.-based players in his current squad, two – Ashley Hall and Louis Mavaega – were born in American Samoa. Two of Mana’o’s daughters Alam and Ava – from Seattle – are the only U.S.-based players who have previously represented American Samoa.
“This is a different look for our team. We have more different players from different places,” Mana’o said. “I am privileged and honored to have my three daughters and a niece as part of this team here in Fiji and as a coach I am so happy to have them.
“This makes me feel extra special about this campaign as we all get together as a family for the country.”
American Samoa lost 1-0 to Vanuatu and 2-0 to the Solomon Islands in its first two matches in Fiji, but Mana’o said the experience of playing in a qualifying tournament would be positive for the team.
“A lot of these kids are younger than the teams we’ve taken in the past for our senior women so it will be a positive experience regardless of what happens,” he said.
Of the Mana’o women Alma, 24, and Ava, 22, are veterans by the team’s standards while Severina, 17, and Haleigh, 21, are relative newcomers. The oldest member of the team is 27, the youngest 14.
“Football is in our blood. The whole family plays and that is how I got into football,” Alma Mana’o said. “We all stay in different parts of the world and today we are together because of football and I would say it is true that football brings everyone together.”