Former Panther Tony Sanneh Ready To Take The World Cup Stage
June 1, 2002
With the 2002 World Cup already underway, the excitement to watch has risen to new heights for the local soccer community in Milwaukee. UWM soccer fans have followed the success of former Panther Tony Sanneh and will cheer him on when he makes his first World Cup appearance with the US National Team on June 5 in Suwon .
Celebrating his 31st birthday today while training in Korea, Sanneh recently took time out of his World Cup preparation and answered some questions for the UWM fan base. But first, let's track Sanneh's career from his All-American status at UWM to his rise at national prowess.
Welcome to Milwaukee
Sanneh came to UWM from St. Paul, Minn., as a two-time all-state and all-metro high school player who helped his team win two state championships. At St. Paul Academy, he played alongside teammate Manuel Lagos, a two-time Minnesota Metro Player of the Year and the nation's No. 1 recruit. The two would continue their soccer tandem and friendship in college.
In his first year as a Panther, Sanneh started nine of 22 games, yet ended the season second in scoring (behind Lagos, who tallied 39 points) with 15 goals and four assists for 34 points. The 6-foot-2 freshman was named Co-MVP of the Big Central Conference Tournament (along with Lagos) after scoring a tournament-record five goals for 10 points in three games. Besides being named to the all-conference first team, Sanneh was also recognized to the All-Mideast Region second team. He helped the Panthers garner their lowest national ranking to date at No. 9 and capture an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
As sophomores in 1991, Sanneh combined with Lagos to score 67 points and fuel the Panther's powerful offense. Starting 15 of 18 games, Sanneh netted 27 points on nine goals and nine assists to finish second on the team in scoring. The towering attacker was selected to the All-Mideast team for the second consecutive year. Lagos, UWM's leading scorer in his first two seasons, was heralded a first-team All-American following his sophomore year.
While the highly-touted Lagos hung up his college jersey to play professional soccer in Spain, Sanneh entered the 1992 season with a big offensive responsibility on his shoulders. Though he would be missing his longtime teammate and best friend, Sanneh now had the chance to turn the spotlight on himself.
Prior to the season, UWM Head Coach Brian Tompkins said, "Tony will be key for us. He will have the opportunity to prove that he is an outstanding talent in his own right. He has the type of ability that could earn him All-America honors, if he plays well."
Sanneh started the season at a torrid pace, collecting eight goals and three assists in the first nine games. Though he suffered a hernia the second half of the season, Sanneh still managed to lead the team in scoring and finished with 12 goals and four assists for 28 points. The All-America candidate entered his senior year primed to break a few school records, as he already stood fifth in career goals and fourth in points.
The 1993 season allowed Sanneh to establish himself as the most prolific player in UWM career history. In 19 games, he collected 49 points (17 goals, 15 assists) for a career total of 138 points, 53 goals and 32 assists. He currently remains the UWM career record holder in each category. Sanneh ended his collegiate career just as prominently as he started it at UWM, and walked away with second-team All-America honors on the way out.
Current UWM head coach Louis Bennett remembers how much Sanneh stood out as a collegiate player. Bennett coached Sanneh during Sanneh's last year and Bennett's first year at UWM as an assistant under Tompkins.
"Tony was definitely different from the normal quality college player, and in three dimensions," said Bennett. "First, he had exceptional athleticism, quickness, size and leaping ability. Second was his mentality. He's such a competitor and consummate gamer. Third was his vision-he always knew and was prepared to do whatever it was going to take to make himself successful. He always saw himself as a professional player."
"Those things made him more productive than others around him at the college level. The combination of those qualities makes up the chemistry for a rare, high-level player. The bottom line between him and the average player-and person-is that he makes things happen for himself. Whatever he wants, he goes out and grabs," Bennett said.
Gaining Experience at the Professional Level in America
After a prosperous collegiate career, the Milwaukee Rampage picked up Sanneh in 1994. In one season with the USL professional outdoor team (then the highest level of professional soccer in the US), Sanneh posted 14 goals and 14 assists. Along with Rampage teammate Brian McBride (who is currently playing in his second World Cup with the US), Sanneh helped Milwaukee record a 16-2 season. Both those losses came against the mighty Minnesota Thunder, who Sanneh would join the following season.
In 1995, Sanneh finished second in USL D3 Pro League scoring with 18 goals and 22 assists for the Thunder. Between those outdoor seasons, he played one year of professional indoor soccer with the NPSL's Chicago Power and finished runner-up for Rookie of the Year honors after recording 27 goals and 35 assists.
Though Sanneh also began the 1996 season with the Thunder, he quickly moved up the professional ranks when D.C. United acquired him a few games into Major League Soccer's inaugural season. Starting 24 of 25 games, he finished fourth on the team in scoring with four goals and eight assists for 16 points. But his most important goal of the season came in the MLS championship, with his team down 2-0 against the L.A. Galaxy. Sanneh's leaping ability allowed him to head home a goal in the 73rd minute, propelling D.C. to comeback late in the game and win 3-2 in overtime.
A starter the next year in his first full season with D.C., Sanneh provided championship game heroics again when he headed in the game-winner to defeat the Colorado Rapids, 2-1. He finished the season with five goals and 11 assists for 21 points en route to helping the team earn its second-straight MLS title.
In the National Spotlight
Between the two league championship seasons, Sanneh got the call to play for the US National Team and made his first appearance with the squad on January 9, 1997 vs. China. In his new role as a defender, he tallied two assists in three appearances that year, including one in the U.S. World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica on March 23. Sanneh did not make any appearances for the US during the World Cup year in 1998, but he did continue to play with D.C. United. Though he missed several games due to injury, he managed to record 16 points (five goals, six assists) in 17 games started. Following the season, Sanneh's run with D.C. United and the MLS soon paved the way for more prosperous roads ahead in top professional soccer overseas.
But first, the former Panther's career reached another milestone in February of 1999. In an appearance with the US National Team on February 6 against Germany, Sanneh scored his first international goal-and a key goal for the US-when he stripped German defender Jens Jeremies of the ball and finished on a breakaway. The US beat the Germans, 3-0, that game. Sanneh made one other appearance with the National team in 1999, helping the US defeat Argentina, 1-0, on June 13. Those two appearances with the US were his only that year because of injuries and club commitments.
Rising to the Respected Bundesliga
The same month Sanneh scored his first goal with the US National Team, he also began his international club career in the German Bundesliga when he signed with Hertha Berlin. He worked his way into the lineup near the end of the season and played in five of Hertha's final six games. Sanneh continued adjusting to the Bundesliga and to Hertha Berlin the next two seasons, playing several positions for the club and appearing in 25 matches; also seeing action in the prestigious Champions League and UEFA Cup.
During this time with Hertha, Sanneh continued to establish himself as a versatile defender/midfielder for the US National Team. After making his mark again in 1999, he played all three Nike US Cup games and started four of six World Cup qualifying semifinal games in 2000. By the end of 2001, Sanneh was tied for the second-most starts on the US squad in overall 2002 World Cup qualifying with 14.
With a more prominent role on the US squad, it was apparent Sanneh needed to have a similar role on his club team in the Bundesliga as well. Like always before, he saw the opportunity to advance his career and transferred clubs to F.C. Nurnberg for the start of the 2001-02 season. Nurnberg just gained promotion to the First Bundesliga after winning the Second Bundesliga championship. Though the club could possibly face relegation because of heightened competition, Sanneh seized the chance for a bigger role and more playing time.
His ambition paid off this past season as he successfully helped battle Nurnberg's claim in the First Bundesliga as a regular starter. The right midfielder/defender scored twice in his first 28 games with the club-including the game-winner against FC Koln on September 22, 2001.
Focusing on the Red, White and Blue
Sanneh's starting role with F.C. Nurnberg this past season has helped his consistency in being a key contributor to the US National Team. In an interview with ussoccer.com released May 6, Sanneh was asked what he thought he needed to show US National Team Coach Bruce Arena in order to be a starter June 5 against Portugal.
"I think I just have to be confident," Sanneh said. "I've been playing well the last two months. I need to give my body a little refreshment. I have pretty good conditioning right now; I just have to keep my confidence up, play simple and play within the guidelines of the team, and hopefully really gel with the players that are here. Then I think I'll have a really good chance to be on the field in Korea."
In the same interview with ussoccer.com, Sanneh was also asked to reflect on the remarkable rise in his career from the Milwaukee Rampage to now playing in one of the world's elite leagues and heading to the World Cup.
"You never really think about it," Sanneh said. "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 went for new challenges. Starting to play professionally after college was a great thing for me. Going to D.C. and winning and coming to the national team was incredible, then moving to Europe to a team where I have more of a leadership role. 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.'"
Recently on May 19, Sanneh was named the Chevrolet Man of the Match in the US's last tune-up game prior to the World Cup. Though the Americans lost, 2-0, to Holland, Sanneh's attack out of the back and individual dominance on defense stood out and earned him the recognition and respect. His confidence and other's confidence in him should make him a key component to the US's backline as they look to make a run in the World Cup.
When Sanneh enters the stadium in Korea in a few days to play in his first World Cup, perhaps he'll remember and be inspired by a quote he gave to the 2000 UWM men's soccer media guide: "Take the field like you own it, or you will always be playing on someone else's field."
Interview with Tony Sanneh (May 28, 2002)
UWM: To those in Milwaukee (especially at UWM), it seems like you have been involved with the US National Team forever, yet this is your first World Cup. How does it feel?
TS: It feels really great to make the World Cup roster. It is a high point in any soccer player's dream.
UWM: Who will you call first after your first match against Portugal?
TS: Probably no one because my family will be here.
UWM: You've been utilized in several positions during your professional career. With D.C. United, you played forward, with F.C. Nurnberg you've played midfield and defense, and with the National team, you play right back. Where do you see playing next season?
TS: I plan on playing central defense for Nurnberg next year, with more of a leadership role.
UWM: Do you have any memories of UWM that you carry with you as time goes on?
TS: Well, I still keep in contact with lots of my former UWM teammates and we always talk about the fun times we had together. There's really not any one (memory), but just being one tightly knit unit.
UWM: From afar, how has UWM's program changed or stayed the same?
TS: It is hard for me to say how the program has changed because I really don't get to see the team and the atmosphere. Though it seems to be very competitive.
UWM: What impact did Coach Bennett have on you in the one year you had him as an assistant coach?
TS: Well, Coach Bennett really let me expand my game and encouraged me to more on the field. He let me do what I was comfortable doing and put me in positions to succeed.
UWM: What advice would you give to any current Panther players?
TS: About college, I would say just enjoy it. It goes by fast, but those are four great years... maybe the best. About soccer, some of you will not play later and some of you will, so those who don't (play later), this is your last hurrah so give it everything. And for those who will continue playing, you need focus and sacrifice to get better if you want to get to the next level.
UWM: During your collegiate career at UWM, you never played under lights at Engelmann. If Engelmann Field had lights, how would that affect games or the atmosphere?
TS: Well, I think having lights would increase attendance and campus interest in the soccer team. We always had a pretty good show, but it would have been nice to showcase a little more.
UWM: Living overseas and playing in the German Bundesliga, how have you settled in or progressed with the language? (Sanneh also now owns a small, cocktail bar there)
TS: I like Germany. Berlin was a great city and I am still getting acclimated to Nuremberg. It has progressed for me because I am there for one purpose, and that is soccer. So it is easier to give 100 percent to it.
UWM: Word has it there was an unsupervised team photo taken at Engelmann while you were at UWM. A lot of soccer balls, though no team uniforms... Do you have any memories of this?
TS: Yes, I still have a 24 x 36 photo of it hanging up in a room in my house. Like I said, we were a close group and wanted something to remind us of the good times we spent together.
(PROMPT - Tony's Response)
ENGELMANN -- Battlefield
PANTHERS - Growth
LAGOS - Best friend (Best friend since we were 11-same high school, college, dorm room and same first semester classes.)
BRUCE ARENA - Winner
QUALIFIERS - Battlers
PORTUGAL - Figo
POLAND - Jacez, my teammate in Nuremberg that plays left mid.
KOREA - Quick
WATER STREET - Hmmm....
LOUIS BENNETT -- Positive