A monthly feature about a U.S. Men's, Women's or Youth National Team player who demands that bright, shining spotlight.
This month, we zoom in on U.S. Men's National Team defender Tony Sanneh, whose unusual soccer career has taken him all the way from a starring role in the A-League (Division II pro league) to a rumored spot in the English Premier League, which should automatically qualify him for some kind of soccer-themed, feel-good, made-for-TV Disney movie. Tell me you can't see it: "From the A-League to the Premier League: The Tony Sanneh Story," starring Denzel Washington as Tony Sanneh, with Danny Aiello as Bruce Arena.
"The Big Cat Goes Big Time"
Sometimes people just step up.
It's the essence of a true star that, under intense circumstances and the shadows of doubt, one seizes the moment and stands atop the mountain, screaming "Here I am!!!"
Tony Sanneh stood up and roared.
The 6'2", 190-pound native of St. Paul, Minn., took one of the most unsettled positions on the U.S. roster and established the right side of the U.S. defense as his territory. Before the start of the 2002 World Cup, while questions were flying about the goalkeeper situation and the forward pairings, the greatest unknown was simply put: Can the U.S. backline get it done? And by the way, who's it gonna be?
Sanneh, by most all measures, answered those questions. He used his speed and strength to neutralize opposing attackers like Joao Pinto and Luis Figo. He used his size to win air battles against the likes of Germany's Miroslav Klose. He displayed tactical awareness by picking the right moments to join the U.S. attack. And he provided some of the most memorable moments of the USA's remarkable ride through the World Cup. Who will ever forget the pinpoint cross delivered to the head of former A-League teammate Brian McBride, assisting on what turned out to be the game?winning goal against Portugal? Or the tantalizingly close header in the waning minutes of the quarterfinal against Germany?
Finally, the world had taken notice. Tony Sanneh couldn't figure out why it took so long.
"I would say that a lot of people misjudged me. I knew I had to play confident and perform because it was 'the show,'" said Sanneh. "I couldn't worry about the position or playing too conservatively and simple. It was time to lean on my strengths."
Movin’ on up
Sanneh cut his teeth in pro ball beginning with the Milwaukee Rampage of the USL in 1994, teaming up with fellow U.S. international Brian McBride ("We did this a thousand times in Milwaukee," McBride would say of the combination that led to the USA's third goal against Portugal.). He tallied 14 goals and 14 assists that year. It was there, during the USA's run through the 1994 World Cup, that Sanneh dreamed of taking the world's grandest stage.
"I remember watching when the World Cup was going on (in the U.S.) in '94," Sanneh told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "We didn't say we were going to do that someday, but we never put limitations on ourselves. From the very beginning, Boro (Rampage coach Boro Sucevic) told me that I could be there, I should be there. He told me that I was world-class, it's just that everybody doesn't know it yet."
Sanneh returned to his home state the following year, joining the Minnesota Thunder. He would excel there for two seasons before catching the eye of the newly-born MLS and the head coach of D.C. United - one Bruce Arena. Sanneh would join United mid-season, assuming the starting role in the right side of the midfield. He started 24 of 25 matches and garnered his first taste of glory, netting the Black-and-Red's first goal, a beautifully timed header, in the 3-2 overtime victory against Los Angeles Galaxy in the inaugural MLS Cup '96. A year later, Sanneh would again demonstrate his incredible leaping ability by nodding home the game-winner against the Colorado Rapids, landing United its second consecutive MLS crown.
His talents no longer a secret, Sanneh made his international debut on January 9, 1997, against China. He tallied two assists in three appearances that year, including one in the U.S. World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica on March 23. While Sanneh did not make the roster for the 1998 World Cup, he had clearly established a future with the U.S. program. And already the world was paying attention.
Big Cat made the leap to Europe at the turn of the new year in 1999, signing with Hertha Berlin of the German Bundesliga. He demonstrated his affection for his new home by scoring his first career international goal in the USA's 3-0 drubbing of Germany on February 6 in Jacksonville, Fla. Over the course of two seasons he would play several different positions while moving in and out of the first-choice team. He also added to his career resume with appearances in the UEFA Cup and the prestigious Champions League.
Meanwhile, he continued to cement his place on Bruce Arena's national team selection. He played in 14 of 16 matches during 2002 World Cup qualifying, tied for second most on the team, but it was still uncertain what role he would play come the World Cup. A converted right back, Sanneh often appeared most comfortable in the midfield. His physical attributes not in question, critics were unsure of his commitment to defending and his decision-making around the box. About this time, Sanneh had adopted a different role at his new club, F.C. Nurnberg, as a central defender and, more importantly, as a team leader. Sanneh embraced the role, and evidence of his maturity notwithstanding, his critics and their doubts would follow him all the way to Korea. Everyone heard his response.
Sanneh's performance in the World Cup has attracted interest from some of the giants in European football. As he awaits the beginning of the Bundesliga season, rumors are floating around about possible moves to England and Italy. The spotlight has shone off the field as well. He appeared with his U.S. teammates on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Today." He's been honored by his former clubs in Milwaukee and Minnesota, and will grace the cover of Northwest Airlines in-flight magazine in September. Despite his never rest attitude, he actually allowed himself a little time to enjoy it.
"I am not a real emotional guy, because I know you always have to go to work tomorrow and get better, but at one point I was thinking about it and smiled," said the mild-mannered giant. "We didn't win the World Cup, but we didn't go out like suckers either. So I can smile about the experience because we made a lot of people proud."
In the end, the future of his fame and fortune rests on the football field, and at least one person has complete faith.
"He's 31 years old, but he's a very young 31," said Arena. "Tony has the ability to compete at the top levels. He's only now beginning to peak."
As for the Big Cat himself, he's already looking ahead. "You set out goals for yourself, and when you reach your goal you just make a bigger one. The more you have, the more you want. I've improved during my career, and I've always strived for new challenges. This is the culmination of it. I think when I look back in ten years, I'm going to say 'I did it my way, and I did it right.'"
After his performance this summer, who would disagree?
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Lasting Images of Korea/Japan 2002)
2) Word Association (w/ WNT midfielder Lorrie Fair)
3) Reyna Reminisces (w/ MNT midfielder Claudio Reyna)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ WNT/U-21 WNT defender Cat Reddick)
5) The Long Road Back (w/ U-21 WNT defender Nandi Pryce)
6) Superstar!! (w/ MNT defender Tony Sanneh)
7) Mark That Calendar (U.S. WNT vs. Norway -- July 21, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN)
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (NEW World Cup trivia)
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