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Black History Month: Tony the Tiger

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Tony Sanneh was an influential part of the 2002 World Cup squad for the United States.

Tony Sanneh of the USA and Gerardo Torrado of Mexico Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

In the 2002 World Cup, the United States Men’s National Team had a nice combination of youth and experience. For Tony Sanneh, he was a guy relatively new on the team that came with the experience needed to settle in and become one of America’s legendary players.

Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Sanneh played local soccer around Minnesota and went to play for the Milwaukee Panthers as a forward. There, he was the school’s all-time leader with 53 goals and 32 assists, becoming a 2nd team All-American in 1993.

After college, Tony Sanneh got his professional start with the Milwaukee Rampage of the U.S. Indoor Soccer League, where he teamed up with Brian McBridge and scored 14 goals and 14 assists. That partnership would come in handy down the road. He also played for various indoor soccer teams like the Chicago Power, Minnesota Thunder, and the Milwaukee Wave in his first few years as a professional.

In 1996, Tony Sanneh was signed by D.C. United midway through Major League Soccer’s inaugural season. There, he provided a versatile option for the Black-and-Red, playing several positions for the team, including right midfield. He scored in the first two MLS Cup finals, leading D.C. United to the title in both 1996 and 1997. He became an integral part of the team that became the league’s first dynasty.

After the end of the 1998 season, Sanneh left D.C. United for Hertha Berlin, spending 3 seasons with the club. While he battled injuries while he was there, he was a regular starter whenever he was healthy. His most famous goal for the club was an assist on a goal in a Champions League victory over Chelsea in 1999. In 2001, he transferred to Nürnberg, where he played almost every match until suffering a back injury that kept him out for 13 months.

Meanwhile, while he came up through the ranks, his play with D.C. United was good enough to earn a call up to the national team in 1997, at the age of 26. He made his debut in a January Camp match against China, but did not make the 1998 World Cup roster. After the USMNT crashed out of the World Cup, then-new coach Bruce Arena, who coached Sanneh at D.C. United, brought Sanneh back into camp. In February 1999, in a match against Germany, Sanneh scored his first goal for the national team as they blasted the Germans by a 3-0 score.

Sanneh had a unique style of play. His tall and physical frame made him an intimidating figure to opponents. No matter what position he played, he routinely was the biggest man on the field, yet he commanded respect with his versatile ability to be physical yet play with exquisite style and grace. He could head the ball forward 40 yards, or he could deke an opponent with excellent footwork and send a beautiful cross into the box right onto a teammate’s head. That’s why he was a player that was always in favor whenever he was healthy.

Sanneh continued to feature regularly for the USMNT, playing as a defender and a midfielder. He became an integral part of the player pool, and featured heavily in each team during World Cup qualifying. His play earned him a spot on the 2002 World Cup team, where he eventually became one of the best players for the team during that tournament in Japan and South Korea. In the USMNT’s first match against Portugal, his partnership that had been created a decade prior with Brian McBride paid off. He was able to provide the cross from the right side that led to a McBride goal that helped lead the Americans to a 3-2 victory. His defense and offense helped throughout the tournament, even in the USMNT’s 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals. Sanneh narrowly missed two chances to equalize in that match, including in the 89th minute which would have sent the match to extra time.

After the 2002 World Cup, Sanneh was oft-injured, but when he was healthy, he was an assured addition to the roster. He worked his way back to health with the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire, and he was called into the roster for the 2005 Gold Cup. He remained with the team as they won the title, and it marked his last days with the national team. Sanneh ended his career with 43 international caps and 3 goals.

These days, Tony Sanneh has been helping with youth development and promoting diversity and inclusion within the game through the Sanneh Foundation. He has focused on efforts in his home city of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, but his efforts on diversity and inclusion have served as a blueprint across the country.

Tony Sanneh has continued to serve his community years after he finished playing for his country. He’ll forever be one of the great players in USMNT history, and he’s living proof that hard work can get you to the mountaintop of your game, even if it takes a while to get there. His indefatigable work has not ceased since he called it a career, and his work with his foundation will help bring along the next generation of athletes. When you think Tony Sanneh, think of a man who was excellent at what he did, and he was able to make his teammates better.

Tony the Tiger. Tony Sanneh is a played who played ferociously, and he made a positive impact on the USMNT during a time when it was at its best.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.