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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU football: Shalom Luani goes from FIFA hero to Cougar safety

Defensive back Shalom Luani, right, is quickly moving up the depth chart at Washington State. (Tyler Tjomsland)

PULLMAN – Shalom Luani was the youngest player on the worst team in the world when he scored a goal that lifted American Samoa from the cellar of international soccer.

Four years later, at Washington State, the Cougars hope he can similarly affect a fledgling defensive backfield.

With the American Samoans nursing a 1-0 lead in the second half of a World Cup qualifying match against Tonga in 2011, the 17-year-old forward lofted a contested shot toward the vacated net.

“I got a pass from the midfielder, it was unexpected, and I saw the goalie come up,” Luani said. “I just decided to lob it up because I couldn’t do anything else but to lob it up.”

Luani’s high-arcing shot just escaped the goalie’s outstretched glove and bounded into the goal, proving to be the difference maker in the 2-1 victory. It was the first victory in 17 years of international play for the American Samoans.

American Samoa is a U.S protectorate in the South Pacific, with a population of about 55,000 that is stunningly proficient at molding football players – WSU alone has seven natives of American Samoa on the football team right now.

But, American Samoa had been stunningly bad at creating fútbol players.

The national team was founded in 1994 and had never risen above last-place in the FIFA world rankings at the time of Luani’s shot. In 17 years the American Samoan national team had been outscored 229-12 entering the match with Tonga.

But Luani’s team, with the help of Dutch coach Thomas Ronger, who currently coaches the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, leapt 18 places in the FIFA rankings. That team is the subject of a 2014 documentary, “Next Goal Wins,” directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison.

The documentary is an illuminating tale of redemption that centers around the engaging figures of Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper who is the team’s best player, but carries the burden of giving up 31 goals in a 2002 loss to Australia, the worst defeat in an international match; and Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgendered player to compete in a World Cup qualifier.

Mostly, it is a story about a small island with a big chip on its shoulder, and a team that out of pride continually put itself in positions to be embarrassed, and finally achieved something better than ignominy.

“My heart cried out,” an unnamed Samoan says in the documentary. “It was like a conch shell sounded and my joy shot to the heavens and stood.”

For now, at least, the team will have to continue without its young, star forward. Luani, whose two goals make him the country’s co-top goal-scorer of all time, has spent the last three years focusing on American football.

“For right now, I’m for sure done with soccer. I just want to pay attention to one thing and pursue it,” Luani said. “ I just started playing football when I was a freshman (in high school) and as I went through my career, I realized I loved contact.”

That love of contact has served Luani well at WSU, where he arrived in time for fall camp with the athletic eligibility of a junior after stints at Chabot College and the City College of San Francisco.

When Luani first came to the United States, he tried to hide his status as an international soccer player, but was discovered when his teammates wondered why the hard-hitting safety was such a good kicker, as well.

The Cougars recruited Luani out of junior college to play right away, and he has climbed up the depth chart at safety quickly, currently playing with the second string and starting in some packages when the defense utilizes a bigger secondary.

Luani has been a quick study in pass-coverage as well, which is good news for a defense that intercepted three passes last season and was worse than all but 10 FBS teams in opponent yards gained per pass attempt.

While he’s no longer playing on the world stage, the crowds Luani encounters while playing Pac-12 football be unlike anything he saw in the matchups between island countries. But so far, he says the lessons he learned as a soccer player have served him well.

“The thing is, it’s just me applying (soccer) to football,” Luani said. “Because it’s a lot of running.”

American Samoans making big impact at Washington State

WSU has seven players on its roster who were born in American Samoa. | Read more »