ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota United FC will host the Bundesliga’s Hertha Berlin at Allianz Field on Wednesday night as the German club seeks to bolster its recognition in the U.S. However, for two Minnesota athletes, the Old Lady needs no introduction.
Tony Sanneh is something of a Minnesota soccer legend. Born in St. Paul, and growing up playing alongside current MNUFC sporting director Manny Lagos, Sanneh forged a 15-year professional career that earned him 43 caps for the U.S. men’s national team. While attending high school at St. Paul Academy, Sanneh played for Lagos’ father, Buzz, and and twice earned all-state honors. College soccer and a school scoring record at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee followed before Sanneh turned professional in 1994.
Sanneh would reunite with Buzz and Manny Lagos when the elder Lagos coached the younger and Sanneh from 1995 to 1996 with the Minnesota Thunder. In 1996, midway through Major League Soccer’s inaugural season, D.C. United signed Sanneh. Twenty MLS goals in 86 league games and his first USMNT call up led Sanneh to set his sights on Europe.
But initially, the Netherlands were Sanneh’s preferred destination.
Heading into then-D.C. United head coach Bruce Arena’s office after practices, Sanneh put togther a mixtape of his games he passed along to his representation.
“I said, ‘I really want to go to Holland, I don’t want to go to Germany,” Sanneh recalled.
Via his agent, a half dozen Dutch clubs along with three German clubs received Sanneh’s VHS highlight package. As fate would have it, Hertha Berlin was the most interested.
Brought in for a two-day trial, Sanneh found himself training with the first team. An imposing physical presence on the field, Sanneh didn’t want to hurt his chances of getting a contract offer by clattering any members of the Old Lady’s first XI and was reserved during his first training session. On day two, things changed.
“I’m playing and this guy just nails me, right? And I’m taking it easy. I looked over at the coach and the coach just kind of shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘Play on.’ So at that point I was pissed off, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t really care about this team anymore, but I’m not going to let people disrespect me.’ So I just followed that one guy, and every time he won the ball — I didn’t foul him — but I cleaned him as hard as I could and put him on his ass. And then I just started to manhandle people. I was a target guy — I would hold two people off and throw guys around, physically dominate people.”
Afterward, in the shower, regret set in as Sanneh was worried he’d lost his head and blown his chances with Hertha. Later that day, Sanneh’s agent coyly asked him, “So how’d it go today?” Sanneh shared his concerns. He still recalls his agents next words: “He said, ‘Well, you must have done something right. I just got done talking to the general manager and the coach came in. They were worried about you the first day, that you were too timid and not going to be able to survive here. But after today, they said the contract’s in the mail — anyone that can play like that we want on our team.'”
Originally unenthusiastic about Germany, Sanneh soon fell in love with its capital.
“It was very international,” said Sanneh. “It was a big city with tons of energy. There was a huge arts movement there, and there was a huge music movement there. East Berlin was just starting to open up and you saw this transforming culture there, especially in art and music, and I think it really drove the change of East Berlin.”
As enamored as Sanneh was with Berlin, he still sought out the comforts of home at an American ex-pat bar. Noting the amount of money he was spending dining out, friends in Berlin suggested he open his own bar to save money. So, along with two business partners, Sanneh did just that. Opening an American bar of his own — Leibniz — near the center of West Berlin. Sanneh often mingled with American G.I.s and former University of North Carolina basketball players who were also plying their trade professionally in Germany. Sanneh notes that he was put on a curfew by Hertha. “I was not to be there after 10 p.m. on a school night, ” he said.
Sanneh became a regular in the Old Lady’s first XI when healthy. A particularly memorable moment occurred when Sanneh assisted Ali Daei on Hertha’s first goal during a 2-1 win over Chelsea FC in a 1999 UEFA Champions League group-stage game at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. But eventually, injuries and tensions between club and national team duties limited Sanneh’s playing time in Berlin.
Those tensions came to a head in the spring of 2000. Then in fourth place, Hertha was fighting to hold on to its spot in the Bundesliga table in order to requalify for the UCL. The USMNT, now coached by Sanneh’s former boss in D.C., Bruce Arena, had an upcoming friendly scheduled in Moscow.
Hertha’s players departing for international friendlies at that time had agreed to play only 45 minutes each to keep themselves rested for the finale of the German club season. But visas for the Americans traveling to Russia proved difficult to come by, and Arena brought just 14 players with him to Dinamo Stadium on April 26. Sanneh played the full 90 minutes even after receiving a yellow card in the 39th minute of the 2-0 loss to Russia.
In the locker room following the game, Sanneh’s phone rang. It was Hertha’s head coach, Jürgen Röber, and Röber was irate. “He’s like, ‘You [expletive]! We’re 20 million [Euros] on the line with this Champions League spot and everyone agreed and you’re the only one who played [a full 90 minutes],” recalled Sanneh. “I just gave the phone to Bruce Arena and those two guys were cussing back and forth at each other for 15 minutes. And then it was done.”
A year later, in 2001, Sanneh moved to 1. FC Nürnberg after the Bavarian club let Sanneh know that it would happy to accommodate his USMNT commitments. During a 13-month absence following a back injury Sanneh suffered, Nürnberg was relegated to the German second division in 2003. Sanneh returned to start the last seven games of the 2003-04 season for Der Club, helping Nürnberg win five in a row en route to a 2. Bundesliga title and promotion to the Bundesliga.
The circumstances surrounding his departure from Berlin in 2001 didn’t sour Sanneh’s opinion of the Old Lady. Before coming out of retirement to play 13 games for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2009, Sanneh traveled to Berlin to train with Hertha’s second team. And he still looks back on his three years with Hertha fondly.
“Playing in Berlin — a city like that — and playing in the Champions League and being a part of that, was very special,” he said.
Since retiring, Sanneh has returned home to Minnesota, where he now oversees the nonprofit he founded. The Sanneh Foundation is focused on aiding the development of low-income youth in the Twin Cities and abroad. Among other accomplishments, it has placed as many as 50 mentors in Twin Cities public schools and run more than 7,500 free soccer camps from Minnesota to Haiti. In 2018, the Sanneh Foundation won a prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award for its service to Twin Cities youth.
Asked — as a kid who grew up in St. Paul and has since returned to plant deep roots in the Land of 10,000 Lakes — if he’d be pulling for Minnesota United or his former club while attending Wednesday’s friendly, Sanneh was diplomatic.
“I hope [the Loons win], or that we’ll see a 2-2 tie. That would be nice as well,” he said.
When Pro Soccer USA posed that same question to another well-known Minnesota athlete, the opposite answer was given.
“I’m going to have to go with my roots. I’m going to have to go with Hertha,” said Minnesota Twins outfielder Max Kepler.
Born in Berlin to a Polish father and Texan mother — both of whom were professional dancers with the Staatsballet Berlin — Maximilian Kepler-Różycki made a professional pilgrimage opposite to the one Sanneh did, leaving Germany for America.
Once a goalkeeper for Hertha’s youth teams where USMNT defender John Brooks was a teammate, Kepler impressed in a number of sports as a child. Eventually, he chose baseball diamonds over soccer fields and tennis courts. One of his parents backed his decision from the jump.
“My dad was rooting for soccer,” said Kepler. “My mom pretty much supported me with whatever I wanted to play. [My dad] was maybe a little sad about my decision for a split second, but it really didn’t last. She supports everything I do, and I think he’s really happy with what I chose to go with.”
Like Sanneh, Kepler’s sporting journey also included a stop in Bavaria. Attending boarding school in Regensberg in 2008 allowed Kepler to play for Buchbinder Legionäre Regensburg in Germany’s top baseball league. Kepler sufficiently impressed Andy Johnson — an international scout working for the Twins — such that in 2009 Kepler signed a professional contract with Minnesota. His reported $800,000 signing bonus was the largest ever received by a European prospect.
Kepler would make his major league debut on Sept. 27, 2015.
The 26 year-old is now the starting right fielder for a Twins team that has the second-best record (31-16) in Major League Baseball.
Did you know, #MNTwins fans?
— Hertha Berlin (@HerthaBSC_EN) May 21, 2019
Hertha players, having arrived in Minnesota on Monday, took a tour of Target Field Tuesday. That tour included a stop by Kepler’s locker. The only disappointment for the parties involved is that Kepler wasn’t in front of it to greet his old club. The American League Central-leading Twins are presently in Anaheim playing a three-game series with the Angels that won’t conclude until late Wednesday night.
“I’m super bummed. It’s bad timing,” Kepler said. “It’s my hometown team and having them reach out to me is something I never really imagined. It’s pretty surreal. One’s out of town, the other’s in town — it’s unfortunate. But I’ll be sure to stop by when I’m back home in Berlin and catch a game.”