In the wake of 9/11, everyone had a story — where you were, who you knew, what you remember. Ten years later, most of those stories have been told. Not this one. Not the one about an MLS team stuck in South America.
The Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting KC) flew to Lima, Peru, on Monday, September 10, 2001, ahead of a Copa Merconorte group-stage match against Sporting Cristal. What happened over the next few days would, as it did for everyone, change the players’ and coaches’ lives forever.
Bob Gansler, head coach: We left a couple of days before the game, which was on the 12th. We would usually give ourselves at least one day to get a workout on the field we were going to be playing on and acclimatize to the time zone.
Tony Meola, goalkeeper: We landed the day before so everything was normal, you know? The next morning I turned on the TV and it had just happened.
Gansler: I got a phone call from one of the assistant coaches, saying, “Turn on the television.” As I turned it on they were replaying the first plane going into the tower and I just thought this was a bad movie.
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Nick Garcia, defender: Tony and I were rooming together, and he woke before me on the morning of the 11th. He had the TV on in the room. I remember rolling over, and he said “Bro, you gotta check this out!” I said, “Are you watching a movie?” And he said, “No, I’m watching CNN.”
Kerry Zavagnin, midfielder: I went down to breakfast with my roommate, Bo Oshonyi, and someone across the table said there was an accident in New York where a plane crashed into a building and that was how I found out about it.
Gansler: Some of guys were straggling in a little late too because they wanted to catch one more word, one more recap on TV. By the time we got there, word had already gotten around to almost everyone.
Garcia: At breakfast that morning, there was a lot of watercooler talk about what was going on. Personally I didn’t have family there but Tony did, Peter Vermes did, Mike Burns had people there ... we were all affected by it, but it definitely hit certain guys more than others.
Meola: Some of us, including myself, had family and friends in New Jersey and New York, and all we cared about was whether or not everyone was OK. But we couldn’t get calls through to anyone. So that just added to the worry, to the stress.
Rob Thomson, team PR: We had Peter Vermes and Tony Meola, who were from New Jersey. Tim Mulqueen was our goalkeeping coach, and he was from New Jersey. Kerry Zavagnin had played in New York for years. So there were some guys with other things on their minds.
The next day, Wednesday, September 12, the club prepared to play Sporting Cristal, a match they wound up losing, 2-1. The KC goal was scored by Onandi Lowe. But before the players ever reached the field, there was a decision to make: Should they play the match at all?
Thomson: Everything had ceased in America, and we were overseas for a game.
Meola: We didn’t want to play.
Thomson: It was kind of up to Gansler and [assistant coach] Brian Bliss to decide.
Gansler: There was obviously some talk: “Should we play or shouldn’t we play?” And for sure a case could have been made then and a case could be made now that you don’t play. So we said, “Is it better to sit around the hotel and watch the umpteenth airing of the disaster or have some distraction and go out and get a physical workout and maybe be able to sleep a little better because you’re exhausted?” We chose the latter.
Meola: Most of the players really didn’t want to play, but the coaches did.
Garcia: Some guys had strong feelings about not playing. Some had stronger feelings about playing. Me, being a young buck at the time, I didn’t have much of a voice, so I was just going to do what I was told, and the powers that be decided that we should play.
Gansler: There were some players who didn’t want to play and some that did, but we never took a count of what we should do. It was a decision that the coaching staff made because perhaps it would serve us better to opt for the distraction and go ahead with the game.
Garcia: We had a lot more security going into the stadium, at the stadium and leaving the stadium. I know there were conversations with the State Department and the White House regarding our security.
Meola: Cristal came up to all of us before the game to express their condolences, and all of the Peruvians were being so nice to us — which is the opposite of what it was usually like when an American team goes down to Central or South America.
Zavagnin: I remember coach Gansler trying to tell us that it was business as usual and that we had a job to do. But there’s no doubt that everyone was affected by it when we took the field on September 12.
Meola: Guys were calling home on their cell phones right up to kickoff.
Garcia: Not everyone’s head was in the game. I know I wasn’t 100 percent there and certainly not the guys who had ties to the city. It’s only human.
Zavagnin: It was a little bit of a numbing experience.
Meola: To this day, the biggest regret of my career is not standing up for what I believed in and playing in that game. We were the only American sports team to play a game on or immediately after 9/11.
After the match, the Wizards were unable to get a flight out of Lima for three days because of flight delays and international flight security.
Thomson: We didn’t know when the team would be able to get back because no one knew how long international flights would be on hold. At first, we heard it would be one to two weeks. So we were all in limbo.
Garcia: It turned into kind of a makeshift preseason camp. As much as we would have liked to have sat by the pool or done whatever, we trained, had team meetings and tried to conduct business as usual. Part of that was because we still had MLS games coming up, but it was partially to give us some distraction from everything that was going on.
Zavagnin: We worked out a little, but we were basically glued to the TV like everyone else back home. We just really wanted to get back home to be with our families and the rest of the country.
Garcia: One of the biggest issues for us was getting us out of the country. [Club owners] Lamar and Clark Hunt had talked about getting a charter flight to get us out. They couldn’t get a plane in or out of the US. There was talk of us getting a flight to Mexico and taking a bus up across the border. It was a weird feeling being out of the country and not being able to get back in.
Thomson: It turned out to be about three days [before we could leave]. And everyone coming back home came on different flights.
Garcia: It was chaos getting back. Some guys left earlier, others left later. It was based on seniority. If you were married or had kids, you got out before the single guys.
Thomson: Brian Bliss had a pair of scissors in his luggage on his way back to Kansas City, and it was kind of this big ordeal because at that time they were still trying to figure out what to do with airport security.
Zavagnin: We didn’t quite realize how the world had changed so quickly until we got to Houston and security started ripping our bags apart. Actually, even before we left Peru at the airport, justified or not, we were eyeing up every passenger getting on the plane. It was just an emotional reaction at the time.
Garcia: When we got back, obviously, things had changed for everybody. There was a heightened state of alert around the league. Stadiums were on lockdown, no planes could fly over games, cars were getting checked. Our world changed, and so did the soccer field.