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MLS Cup Moments

Top 50 MLS Cup Moments: #42 Closet Striker

MLS Cup Top 50: #42 Tony Sanneh (1997)

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D.C. United 2 Colorado 1
Moreno 37'
Sanneh 68'
Paz 75'
Did You Know?
In 1994 Tony Sanneh showed off his goal-scoring prowess with the Milwaukee Rampage with 14 goals alongside teammate Brian McBride.
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#42. Closet Striker (1997)

The big man was not happy.

Tony Sanneh was told by D.C. United manager Bruce Arena that he’d be starting MLS Cup 1996 on the bench and he didn’t like it one bit. After picking up an injury late in the season, he was a substitute for most of that postseason but he had healed in time for the championship match and expected to start. Arena, however, decided to stick with the starters that got him there.

“I was very upset,” Sanneh said. “Bruce will never say it, but after that game, I‘d never come off the bench again until the end of my career when I was in LA with him. For the next three years in D.C. I was never on the bench.”

That’s because Sanneh made an immediate impact on that first final, with what was arguably the key play that launched D.C. United on their dynastic run of MLS Cups in those early years.

With D.C. down 2-0 to LA in a Nor’easter that made it nearly impossible to play, he connected with Marco Etcheverry on a 73rd-minute header goal just 14 minutes after coming into the match at right midfield.

“When I went in [in the 59th minute], I thought this was my moment,” Sanneh recalls. “Marco and I had that connection so it was very easy to judge. He hit it and I started running and I got a good jump. I remember [Eduardo] Hurtado went up for it and I assumed it was going over his head and I timed it right. It cleared him and I snapped down a header to [Galaxy 'keeper Jorge] Campos’ feet. He’s not a big guy and he’s not going to come out in that traffic and luckily I buried it. It started the turnaround.

“I’d like to think I’m part of the D.C. United legacy because I think that was the turning point to us being the dominant team in MLS in those first three years. I don’t think in our minds after we scored that goal that we were going to lose. At least I didn’t. But then again, I never do.”

A forward growing up in Minnesota and a spot starter at striker for D.C., that ’96 header was not Sanneh’s last encounter with an MLS Cup goal. A year later he was back at it at RFK Stadium for MLS Cup 1997 against the Colorado Rapids.

After assisting on United’s first strike by Jaime Moreno, Sanneh scored a near identical goal to his header in ‘96 in the 68th minute. He became the first MLS player to score in consecutive MLS Cup finals.

“Same type of situation,” Sanneh said. “John Harkes was on the wing and I knew he would get a cross off. And it was the same two people: me and Eddie [Pope] deciding who was going to go first and second post. He made the near post run and I made the second post. I lost my man and it was all a matter of me heading the ball down just like the first year. It was rainy, too.”

Sanneh ran over to celebrate with 10 of his best friends from Minnesota, who made the 20-hour road trip to D.C. and were sitting right behind the bench.

“I look up after scoring and they were right there and I ran right at them,” Sanneh said. “To see them go nuts was the best moment of my soccer life. Not because we scored and were about to win another championship. It’s how happy I made my friends and their joy afterward. Even today they talk about making the trip and being right there.”

Today, Sanneh continues to touch people’s lives for the last eight years as full-time executive director of The Sanneh Foundation (www.TheSannehFoundation.org) based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

His organization has developed programs for equipment collection and redistribution, in-school and after-school academic and soccer training, college application assistance for soccer prospects, free soccer camps and anti-racism campaigns. The Sanneh Foundation has also reached outside the US borders with a high-profile Haitian initiative.

“I hope to be involved in pro soccer again,” says Sanneh, who does work with the US Development Academy and the US national team program. “But this is a way to be involved and to give back and not worry about politics. We hope to give access and opportunity to kids and I don’t have to answer to anybody except to lawmakers.”

While his legacy is still being written off the field, the memories he has left in MLS will always be headlined by his two MLS Cup goals, which showed a forward’s instincts.

“If I had just stuck at forward, it would have been interesting because I wasn’t a natural finisher but I was a pretty smart player and made good runs,” Sanneh said. “But early on I didn’t have the discipline and consistency for a goal scorer. But I did have the discipline to get back on defense and be a two-way player. If I would have matured mentally a little sooner, I think l could have been one of the greats.”

He already is.

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