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Thursday, September 30, 2004
Sanneh: A vital Crew member

Marc Connolly

Tony Sanneh could be playing in the German Bundesliga this year.

Despite a complicated injury to his back and pelvis that kept him out of action for most of the 2003-2004 campaign, the U.S. National Team defender played well during the final two months of the season for F.C. Nurnberg and helped his club earn a promotion to Germany's top league after winning the second division crown.

Sanneh was even offered a new two-year contract. And he was ready to take it, as the lure of returning to the Bundesliga was enough to keep him in the country where he had spent the last five-and-a-half years playing soccer.

But once the 33-year-old from St. Paul, Minn., started discussing the extension with his family back home, he realized that his stay overseas had gone long enough.

"I just didn't believe that I wanted to be there for two more years," says Sanneh. "It wasn't really a soccer decision. It was a life decision. There are things that are more important than soccer, and I've been away for a long time, so I started to think about MLS."

Though Sanneh admits that his ability to watch Major League Soccer matches was "not much at all" since signing with Hertha Berlin in February of 1999, it wasn't as though he didn't know the league.

He was not Earnie Stewart or Jovan Kirovski - National Team players who had plied their trade in Europe before giving MLS a try later in their careers.

In fact, Sanneh was a player who not only won two rings with D.C. United during his three years in MLS (1996-98), he remains one of the prime examples of a player whose success in the league earned him a shot with the National Team and was directly responsible for his signing in Germany.

Naturally, there was some loyalty to D.C. United, so he had his old club in his top three choices when he started having discussions with those in MLS over the summer. But, really, it came down to two teams: the Kansas City Wizards and the Columbus Crew.

Being that the majority of his family are in Minnesota, Sanneh wanted to play in the Midwest. He was drawn to the Wizards because he had known head coach Bob Gansler for years, and had even played for him briefly in 1996 for the Milwaukee Rampage of the A-League.

Yet, the more he looked at the Crew and the Wizards and compared the two teams, the more he realized where he should go.

"Kansas City is a great organization, but the one reason I didn't choose to go there was because I felt that their team is a little bit older and more established," he said. "With Columbus, I could fill the void more than in K.C."

And fill the void he has. Since joining the Crew in late August, Sanneh has scored two game-winning goals to help his new side win four straight matches to take over first place in the East.

"He's the difference between all those teams right now," says one Western Conference G.M. "Getting Tony makes Columbus a little stronger than the rest of the clubs who are in the playoff chase."

Sanneh had previously played in Crew Stadium twice -- both times coming with the National Team in 2001 -- but wasn't sure what he'd expect when he joined the squad.

It didn't take long, though, to figure out that he was joining a blue-collar team that takes pride in its defense, first and foremost, and ability to gain points even when not playing at its best.

"I like the fact that they're a hard-working group of guys who are pretty humble," says Sanneh after a mid-week training session as the Crew prepares for Saturday's home match against Chicago. "Overall, they try and play soccer."

In other words, this isn't a group just trying to grind out results while playing it in and playing unattractively. It's the type of team that plays with a style that Sanneh says would do well anywhere.

"In most professional leagues in the world, with the caliber of the athletes now, if you put 11 athletes on the field who work hard, you'll automatically be an above-average team," he says. "If any of those players are very skilled, you'll be even better. There are teams in Europe who have mediocre players, but they work hard, so they survive."

Always a workman-like player, Sanneh has fit in perfectly, and has been perceptive enough to realize that he doesn't need to be Superman with this group or the main voice in the locker room to help this team go far into the playoffs in search of the franchise's first conference title and Alan I. Rothenberg trophy.

"It's actually much harder to come in when you're a National Team-level starter and you've played on other championship teams and not take over," says Sanneh. "I've tried to come in and fit in. It might mean I'm not doing what I do best, but rather what makes the team best. That could be playing simple. What I'll help with is the attitude and the confidence it takes to do well. The other guys feed off the confidence and the attitude of other guys, too, like (Simon) Elliott and (Robin) Fraser."

Sanneh has taken the time to talk to the several young players on the Crew, knowing that sometimes advice from an older player is even more worthwhile than from anyone on the coaching staff because they are able to both demonstrate and carry out their instructions in training and during the matches.

"I've had a long journey in my life and have had a successful career, as has a guy like Frankie Hejduk," says Sanneh. "So when we tell the younger players something, there's a reason they listen to us."

Crew assistant coach John Murphy believes Sanneh's calm demeanor in the locker room has helped, but even more so on the field, as his poise with the ball -- no matter where he is playing or what the situation is -- has been the most beneficial to the club.

"That's where Tony takes it to the next level," says Murphy. "That's where you see all of his experience. He's so composed on the ball and is never careless when he has possession. That's what we stress as a coaching staff, especially when we have the ball in our half of the field, so Tony added to that, and has upgraded us is many ways."

In essence, the Crew got a player who can play nearly every position on the field for them, which gives manager Greg Andrulis an exceptional amount of flexibility when filling out his lineup card. In his four starts, Sanneh has seen time as a central midfielder and as a right back.

"Wherever you play him, he's going to do the job," says Murphy. "No matter where he is, you also know he's going to be dangerous on set pieces going forward, and instrumental in helping us defensively when the other team has a free kick."

Both of Sanneh's goals have come off of free kicks. His tally in last weekend's 1-0 victory over D.C. United was scored with his head, which is always a target when you stand 6-foot-2 as Sanneh does, and the other came off a re-direction of an Elliott free kick in the 3-1 triumph over San Jose earlier in the month.

National Team fans are hoping that this type of effectiveness will help the United States over the next two World Cup qualifying matches against El Salvador on October 9 and against Panama on October 13, as Sanneh has been called in by Bruce Arena for next week's games.

Considering he's played in three different positions in each of his appearances for the U.S. this year -- most recently as a centerback when he was paired with Carlos Bocanegra in the 4-0 win over Honduras on June 2 -- it's not easy to forecast where he'll line up next.

But one thing's for certain: when Sanneh has been healthy, he is not only a sure-fire selection for the U.S. squad, but is most always on the field from the start, no matter what role he is needed to fill.

"In my mind, I think you'll see me at right back," says Sanneh of the position he played during the team's run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002. "Depending on the strength of our team as a whole at the time, you could see me as a centerback. I'm sure, at some point, I'll also be in the midfield, too. The last three games I've played, I played right back, right midfield and centerback."

It doesn't matter too much to Sanneh where he plays, either.

"It really depends on what team I'm on and the system they're playing," he says. "In a traditional 4-4-2, I'm more comfortable -- at this point in my life -- as a right back. If the team isn't as experienced, I'd prefer to be in the middle of the defense. That's where I played in Nurnberg the last two years.

"Bruce knows what I can do. It's good to be versatile, and it's gotten me a lot of places."

Should he continue his stellar play for the surging Crew, the places the game has taken Sanneh could include a trip to the Home Depot Center and another appearance in an MLS Cup final.

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com


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