Tony Sanneh’s career path through the sport of soccer is one of the more interesting and storybook tales in recent history. He came up the hard way, making a name at a small soccer school (Univ. of Milwaukee-Wisconsin) and excelling in two years in the A-League (first for the Milwaukee Rampage, then for the Minnesota Thunder) before getting a shot in MLS. After two rings in three years as part of the D.C. United dynasty, he made yet another jump up in level of play when he went off to play in the German Bundesliga. Proving time and again that he can succeed at any level, he was a natural choice for U.S. Men’s National Team duty, where he went on to play all five games at the 2002 FIFA World Cup and helped the U.S. to an eighth-place finish. Now at 33, he’s back where he belongs in the Midwest with the Columbus Crew, joining the team in the midst of an 18-game unbeaten streak before they got upset in the playoffs.
Center Circle: What are three words that describe your experience in Germany?
Tony Sanneh: Growing, rewarding, and challenging.
CC: Is there anything you miss about Germany, either on or off the field?
TS: Playing in front of full stadiums. And the paychecks!
CC: What was your best moment as a player in your years there?
TS: In 2002, we had to beat Leverkusen to stay in the Bundesliga, and they had to beat us to win the championship. They were already in the finals of the Champions League. We won the game 1-0, and I played center back/sweeper. I played one of my best games, and it was very rewarding because everyone was working together for a common goal. I didn't realize how big a deal it was until after the game and everyone started going crazy.
CC: How well did you follow MLS while you were in Germany?
TS: I followed it through the other players I saw in U.S. camps, but it was hard to follow because it wasn’t on TV. I followed as much as I could online.
CC: Did people there treat you any differently after you and the rest of the U.S. team came so close to knocking Germany out of the 2002 World Cup?
TS: A little bit. It wasn’t just that game, but our whole World Cup. People saw it was an inspiring moment, and many thought we deserved to win. To this day, people still congratulate us on our performance.
CC: You played particularly well in that match, and also scored your first international goal against ze Germans. Why do you think you have so much success against them?
TS: I don’t think it’s them. It’s always been a big game for us, and in general I’ve played better in games that I’ve gotten up for.
CC: How has the league and the level of play changed since you left to play overseas?
TS: It’s hard for me to say, because I haven’t played against all the teams. But there’s a lot more good players in the league. I think the systems and the strategies are lagging a little bit, but the technical and physical ability of the players has improved.
CC: Did you ever think your paths would cross so closely again with former Minnesota Thunder teammate and childhood friend Manny Lagos?
TS: You always hope that you play with people you get along with. It’s one of the nice things about being in Columbus that I get to play with a childhood friend.
CC: You had only a short period of time to adjust to the situation in Columbus, and there were times where you seemed to fit in easily and others you seemed a bit lost. Why was it so up and down for you?
TS: I think a lot of it had to do with me being out of shape and joining a team on a winning streak. The last part had to do with positioning. When I came in, we won some games, and I scored goals as a defensive midfielder, which is where I felt comfortable when not playing in the back. After that, because of my fitness and differences in philosophy, I was moved to positions that I have never played before in my life. Soccer is soccer, but there is still a comfort level of being familiar with what you are doing and it’s hard to be 33 and be asked to be a stay-at-home marking back for the first time ever or an attacking midfielder for the first time since college. Still, soccer is soccer, and a five-yard pass is a five-yard pass. But I should have been able to do better.
CC: After the lengthy unbeaten streak followed by the early exit in the playoffs, is it fair to say that the team choked?
TS: I think you can look at it anyway you want. I think you can say I choked on the penalty kick. Just because we didn’t lose a lot didn’t mean we were the best team. Our unbeaten streak over 18 games had a lot of ties. Our team, as well rounded as we were, we were good at not losing, but not the best at winning. In the playoffs, you need to win at least one game to advance.
CC: You owned a bar over in Germany. Are there any hot clubs in Columbus that you wouldn't mind having a stake in?
TS: Columbus is a fun place, but I’m getting too old for that kind of lifestyle.
CC: Speaking of which, at 33, let's be frank, you're no spring chicken. In fact, you're more than twice the age of one particular player. How long do you see yourself out there battling the young kids in MLS?
TS: When I came back from my injury, I still had my endurance and my speed. Then I played the national team games in May and June, which were at a very high level. Then I had about 10 weeks off before joining Columbus in the middle of their season, and I was 10-12 pounds overweight. If I stay in shape, I can play at least three years easy. After that, I don’t even know if I would want to play. My goal is to play through the World Cup in 2006, then decide what direction to go after that.
CC: Having grown up in Minnesota, played college in Milwaukee, then moved on to Germany and now Columbus, you've undoubtedly been through some long, hard winters. What's your worst we-used-to-walk-10-miles-uphill-in-the-snow-to-school-every-day winter story?
TS: I have two stories. One, when we were little and we’d have to take the bus to school in the morning. We had a game called hooky-bob. We would grab onto the back of the bus and let it pull us through the snow. The other is when I was at school camp in seventh grade, and the temperature was minus-30. We had to sleep outside in snow igloos.
CC: How many beer steins can you hold with one hand?
TS: I’ve never tried. At Oktoberfest you need both hands to lift one.
CC: Your nickname is “Big Cat.” Do you own any cats? Maybe a German shepherd?
TS: No pets, but my ex-girlfriend had a rather large rottweiler.
CC: And finally, a softie: What's your favorite thing about the game of chess?
TS: I just like to compete, no matter what game it is.