BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, July 21, 2010
With the 2010 World Cup now over and the US national team making preparations to start the 2014 cycle, the 2002 World Cup team still remains the most accomplished version.
That team was successful because so many players rose to the occasion and the player who perhaps had the best tournament was right back Tony Sanneh. Throughout the tournament he anchored the team's defense and frequently pushed forward to create scoring chances.
After closely watching the 2010 US team win their World Cup group for time ever but fail to advance past the round of 16, Sanneh was able to compare and contrast the differences between the current team and his team that advanced a game further to the quarterfinals.
To him, the key difference was the amount of experience the 2002 team had on the bench.
"I mean the teams are made up really differently," Sanneh told YA. "That  team you have to think one of those things the reason why it was so good was the depth on the bench with so much more experience where depth here [on the 2010 team] was more potential."
"So I mean every guy that came in, you are kind of wondering what he was going to do," he continued. "In 2002, Cobi Jones had 140 caps coming off the bench so you knew what you were going to get."
As for the US team moving forward, Sanneh feels that the biggest challenge for the team is not in the backline but rather in developing attacking forwards who are capable of individual moments of brilliance that can change the outcome.
While he admitted the loss of Charlie Davies really hurt this team, the team's strikers still need to be more dangerous.
"As far as the development, you always hear people complain about our defense but that's not where this country is," Sanneh analyzed. "We have never produced a player that can go on to score goals with the rest of the world. Although Landon is a great player, he is not playing forward anymore either so we need that from our attackers and from our strikers to be just a little bit more dangerous up there.
"We are good athletes, but [other teams] are good in the back so if you don't have players that are going to do something special and actually beat a man, then it's going to be very tough."
Still, Sanneh said that the current team moved the game forward in the country's public eye and that is very important in terms of raising the game's image.
"They did enough to be considered not a failure but they didn't do enough to be considered a great success," Sanneh evaluated. "In the fashion that they won, it drew a lot of attention which was good. I think overall, I don't want to say they were exciting to watch with the style of play, but there was excitement because the games were all close and they fought and they worked hard and they kept the American public interested which is part of the whole thing."
One of the more controversial issues moving forward in US Soccer is the fate of head coach Bob Bradley. Sanneh was not shy to give his opinion.
"Bob Bradley did good enough to keep his job," Sanneh said frankly. "It's hard to say because with US soccer, we are looking at the next World Cup. It all really depends on what US Soccer wants to do."
Sanneh, 39, began his professional career in 1994 after playing for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Following a great college career in which he scored 53 goals as a forward and was a second team All-American, Sanneh decided to become a professional.
Sanneh would start his pro career with the Milwaukee Rampage of the United States Interregional Soccer League (now USL) where he played with future 2002 USMNT teammate Brian McBride. From there he would bounce around between USISL teams and NPSL teams of the indoor league.
In 1996 things would begin to progress rapidly for Sanneh when he signed for DC United during the middle of the inaugural MLS season. Still playing as a forward, he was an offensive threat but his versatility saw him eventually move towards right back.
Sanneh would win the first two MLS Cups under head coach Bruce Arena and would even score goals in both the 1996 and 1997 finals. While MLS has come a long way since those days, Sanneh still feels those first two DC United teams could compete with today's teams.
"I would say overall we are developing more capable, athletic and better players but I am not going to say [the current MLS] is better. I look at our DC team with the depth we had with players in their prime. I look at the great Chicago teams. They would have walked through this league. I think that the problem with salaries now and you have more good players that it's harder."
Sanneh said the key towards improving MLS is to have more veterans and players in their prime on teams. He opines that the current MLS setup features a lot of young players but there is a lack of veterans on teams which hurts development.
For Sanneh, a model MLS team would be Los Angeles that works in younger players like Michael Stephens, Tristan Bowen, and Omar Gonzalez around veteran leaders like Landon Donovan, Greg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis and David Beckham.
"The young guys are afraid to make a mistake," Sanneh assessed. "Half the teams are under 23 or 24 and we are not Arsenal, so the level suffers because we have too many technically deficient players on the field because they are just too young."
"There are a lot great players coming," he continued. "We've produced tons but technically you need to be in a good situation. This LA team, it's a lot like our old DC team, a lot of veterans, but with a lot of guys in their prime and you have two or three young guys mixed in."
Following the 1998 MLS season, Sanneh made the move abroad to Germany where he would play first for Hertha Berlin. Following two seasons there, he would play for Nurnberg through the end of the 2003/2004 season.
Sanneh feels that moving overseas is a great way for a young American player to develop quickly so long as he is in a position to play regularly.
"When I went to Germany, the one thing I noticed that we lack here is that practice is a practice and therefore a job," Sanneh recalled. "I wasn't super young. I played on the great team so it was easier for me to develop because I was still good enough to play every day. "
"As far as my work, I mean I always worked hard so I wasn't lazy but mentally when I went over there I was a lot more focused because they didn't expect of you to learn."
Following his European career, Sanneh would return to MLS. After stints at Columbus, Chicago and Colorado, he would finish his career last season in Los Angeles under Bruce Arena.
Sanneh used an example from a practice one day at the Galaxy to describe the differences in the mental approach to the game in the MLS in comparison to Germany. An approach that Arena sought to change.
"I was back here, I was doing an exercise, we are goofing around and making mistakes, and Bruce was like, ‘listen, the way you are going, you are too good for that.' I had to rethink and check myself because I am a professional soccer player on a national team and we are doing a dribbling exercise. He is right and why was I letting myself you know not concentrate a 100%? That is what changes over there."
Sanneh these days lives in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota and is still very active in the game. He has plans for a second career in coaching and is looking to soon acquire his license which will have him join the ranks for many former players of his generation who are looking to provide much needed higher quality coaching in the US.
"I am getting my A license this fall," Sanneh said of his future plans. "Most times people are going to hire someone they're close to or comfortable with so it might take time to get in there. I do have a camp here where we get high level kids and that lets me work on a player's development at a grass roots level."
While Sanneh does have interest in the youth level, eventually his goal is to get to the professional level and help players who are just starting their careers.
"I would hope to get a professional job and go to a team and basically assist the coach where I could take care of the final points and get to these young guys. We always have so many young guys whom are with potential that do not turn out. I think I can really help 19 to 24 year old kids take the next step. I think that if some of these young guys catch on, they can have long successful careers like I did."
Also at the core of Sanneh's current plans is his foundation that helps provide equipment and other necessary items for kids to participate in the game. It hopes to make soccer more accessible to lower income children and it also has other socially important objectives such as anti-racism and leadership training.
"It's called the Sanneh Foundation, if you go thesannehfoundation.org, there is a list of different programs there. This fall, we are going to be in more schools for after-school leadership programs. Now we have a local club and community shoe drives and also we do anti-racism training. We go on to clubs and we try to increase the participation for kids of color and low-income. We provide clothes to the kids and also just train the club in general."
Also part of the foundation is a newly-established Haitian initiative to help those in Haiti affected by last January's devastating earthquake.
"We have a Haitian initiative," Sanneh discussed. "I went to Haiti together with five other foundations and we worked with a group down there and did some coaching and food drives after the earthquake. We decided that's going to be ongoing thing so we are going to try to get there once or twice a year."
So while the foundation is what is taking up most of Sanneh's time, he said he is also frequently in touch with a lot of the players of his generation who are also looking to make the leap towards coaching.
He said they all seem to know it is challenging but having the professional experience at the player level will be very useful.
"It's funny because we always said when we become a coach, we are going to do something different," Sanneh concluded. "Then when one guy did coach, the first thing he said was ‘well, it is different so it's not as easy as it looks.' But it is important to have that player-first mentality so I keep in touch with all the guys."