The FIFA World Cup combines the best soccer players from each country to find the greatest team in the world. Some players have only one opportunity to represent their respective countries in the World Cup. Columbus Crew SC Assistant Coach Josh Wolff earned the honor twice.
“I'm fortunate that it worked out but it's a long process. Looking back on it, it's still incredible. To go to one is great — to go to two was icing on the cake,” said Wolff.
The Georgia native grew up playing a little bit of every sport with his older brothers, until soccer became the primary sport amongst the family.
“Growing up, soccer had no real pulse in this country yet, so we didn't get to see it and live it and breathe it, but it was all my family kind of took part in. We just buckled down, played a lot of soccer — both indoor and outdoor — and that was kind of the beginning of it,” said Wolff.
Wolff played soccer at both the high school and collegiate levels, eventually leaving college during his junior year to sign with Major League Soccer. The forward went on to play professional soccer for 14 years with three different MLS clubs and one season in Germany. During that time, Wolff also made one Olympic appearance and earned 52 caps for the U.S Men’s National Team. With soccer being an important part of his childhood, the idea of playing in a World Cup was not a foreign one.
“It probably crossed my mind,” Wolff said. “You watch it enough and the first ones I remember watching were 1986 with Argentina and Diego Maradona, and then watching in 1990 in Italy. I think the biggest thing for me was my first goal was to try to make an Olympic team and go to an Olympics and just try to stair step some progressions. From there you start setting other goals. I think in the back of my mind yeah it was something I would love to be part of but you just don't go from point A to point B. There are some things along the way.”
Wolff took the time to build himself as a player to secure his spot on the U.S. MNT World Cup roster. In 2000, the then Chicago Fire player headed to the Summer Olympics and helped the United States to a fourth-place finish.
The following year, Wolff had the opportunity to play in a World Cup qualifying match against Mexico in Columbus, OH. In the 15th minute, Wolff subbed on for an injured Brian McBride. Wolff played for 75 minutes, scoring a goal and providing an assist that would earn him Match of the Man honors in the inaugural “Dos a Cero”.
In April 2002, Wolff was named to the 23-man U.S. MNT squad for the 2002 Korea/Japan FIFA World Cup. After his successes with the National Team, Wolff was confident about seeing his name on the roster.
“I remember when it came down to it, you're just waiting to get the call from the administrator or they do the release on TV and you find out that way,” Wolff reminisced. “So, I was nervous but I was confident about it. You still hold out until your name is called and once it is you are pretty excited about that opportunity. You put in a lot of work to get to that point and now you get to go represent your country at the biggest event in the world so it's great.”
Having been an active member of the U.S. MNT Under-20 and U-23 squads, Wolff was familiar with the culture of Korea and Japan.
“We played in South Korea three times actually, so I had been there before,” said Wolff. “We went there with the National Team in December the year before the World Cup, so we were pretty well-versed, pretty well prepped and it was a fantastic experience. Seoul, South Korea is a very big city — a busy city — but I think the experiences that I had with the Youth National Team and previous with the National Team allowed me to be a little more comfortable with what the expectations were from a cultural stand point.”
As Opening Day arrived, the U.S. was ready to play South Korea on home turf for their first match of the tournament. Wolff was slated to watch from the bench but in the final eight minutes he was substituted into the game.
“It was a wild atmosphere,” Wolff remembered. “The South Korean fans were tremendous throughout the tournament and their ability to make every game special and have an atmosphere and bring energy was tremendous. And now we are playing them in a phenomenal venue — 60,000 people. We go up and then obviously there is some back-and-forth throughout the game that ends up 1-1 but for me to get in it was great. It's the same idea when you come in as a sub, you try to make an impact. Difficult game, difficult environment but very exciting and rewarding in the long run that we got a point. That was enough to get out of the group so it was good to be part of that.”
Advancing from the group stage, the U.S. MNT were to play Mexico in the Round of 16. Wolff made his first World Cup start against the USA’s rivals. In just the 8th minute, Wolff recorded an assist for the U.S. by providing the helper on Brian McBride’s goal.
“I saw Claudio [Reyna] going in the corner and I just tried to get across the first post and keep it alive, sort of dig it out. As I was getting to that point I knew Brian [McBride] was somewhere behind me, I wasn't totally sure, but just tried to put it in his path and he took it — he took it as clean as you could, so it was fantastic,” said Wolf.
The U.S. scored again in the second half to advance to the quarterfinals and continue the “Dos a Cero”.
“I think the inaugural [Dos a Cero] in Columbus is fantastic but the one at the World Cup for me takes the cake because it's at the biggest event against your most heated rival and they felt it, and you could see they felt it,” said Wolff. “It was the first time I think - on a global scene - that we actually put it to Mexico and that was rewarding for us.”
The USA was eventually eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals. Upon returning home, Wolff resumed a flourishing MLS career and began setting career-high records. As the next World Cup approached, Wolff was again named to the 23-man U.S. MNT squad — this time heading to Germany.
“I had a good feeling, as I did in 2002,” said Wolff. “You are a little bit relieved when it comes to pass and that you are named, but I was obviously excited to be able to go back to another World Cup. Having done what we did in 2002, I think the group was very excited about the opportunity. Germany was going to provide a different atmosphere.
“Germany is a soccer world, so the game is everything -- it's on every corner, it's on every TV so I think that in itself was certainly a big difference from the Korea/Japan experience. We got out to beer gardens and restaurants and experienced Germany for what it is and that made it enjoyable. I had my kids with me too and my family, so it becomes more of an experience for the whole group that we are able to look back on and we have pictures now. It was a lot of fun.”
Wolff and the U.S. MNT did not have the same success as in 2002, being eliminated from the tournament in the group stage.
“We tried to play off of our successes in 2002 and it became a difficult World Cup for us, but I think getting to that moment we were in a good place. It was just a tougher path for us than the previous [tournament],” said Wolff.
In both World Cup appearances, Wolff was able to play alongside Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. Their relationship as teammates with the National Team grew into a relationship as coaches for Columbus Crew SC.
“What you recognized about Gregg right away was his intensity and passion for the game,” Wolff said of his teammate. “It was about the game and making it as good an experience as you can. I don't think you see much different today. He's very detail-oriented now and I think he always bring a level of intensity when we are playing.
“Off the field, he's a fun, charismatic guy and I think when you are with the National Team that is always part of it. It's business when you are on the field but off the field there is time to enjoy each other and enjoy your down time. I went to Munich to play and Gregg was there and he was part of my reasoning for going there. It's been a good ride. I've been around Gregg or communicating with Gregg for a long time now and I'm thankful for a lot of the opportunities.”
Looking back on his experiences, Wolff will never forget the feeling of eliminating another team from the tournament.
“The moment we beat Mexico in 2002 — to see what it was like in the game and how it physically and mentally destroyed them. Then, after the game when we are on our bus next to their bus and its literally within feet of their bus and they are having to watch us celebrate within our bus and our moment when they are just completely dejected.
“To have that moment where we put it to them on the global scene of the World Cup was an awesome experience. It was a good moment. It was a really good moment,” said Wolff.
As his career in coaching expands, Wolff will always carry these memories from his days on the pitch with him. Wolff has shared his two World Cup experiences with his soccer loving family and taken the time to instill his passion for soccer in his four children.
“They have seen them [the stories]. They have seen them, they have read them — sometimes they don't believe them,” Wolff said when asked about his kids. "They are soccer junkies. So, yes I want them to see it because you want them to feel it and you want them to enjoy what these moments are like.
“World Cups, whether you are part of it or not, are the most exciting time in a soccer fan's life. This is why you do it — to have a long, strong career and give yourself an opportunity to play in World Cups because it is a difficult challenge.”