Robert Warzycha

FreeKick: MLS remembers 9/11

On September 11, 2001, the world stopped. The largest terrorist attack on United States soil took place when four commercial aircraft were hijacked and directed towards landmarks in the northeast of the country. The whole world was glued at the television as two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, destroying two of the most recognizable buildings in the world, one crashed into the Pentagon and one was brought down in a field near Shanksville, Pa. by a group of resilient passengers.

On the 10th anniversary of this terrible tragedy, as we commemorate these unfathomable events, we look back at how it affected Major League Soccer and the sports world in general and share the stories of some of the key people involved in the league ten years ago.

The season was almost done as most teams were getting ready to play their final one or two games before heading into playoffs. The Columbus Crew was traveling from Tampa, Fla. to Denver Colo. for a match against the Rapids slated for Wed., Sept. 12.

“There were two games left in the season and it was our second before last,” said Crew coach and former midfielder Robert Warzycha.  “The pilot told us there was a terrorist attack on the United States and that we were having an emergency landing in Alabama. I was the first one to call my wife because mine was the only phone that was working. She was the one to tell me that a plane hit the towers. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t imagine how a plane could hit the World Trade Center.  It was absolutely shocking. Everybody was calling their families and found out what happened but I could never, even just using one piece of imagination, think that something like this could happen.”

Tucker Walther was acting as team administrator and equipment manager of the Crew.

“After we found out what had happened we started talking to the players and they told us they all wanted to go back to their families as soon as possible,” Walther said. “Scott De Bolt (VP of operations) and Rob Crockett (operations assistant) helped us get a bus arranged and we got the team on a bus back to Columbus.”

The Crew was not the only team stranded; the Kansas City Wizards were in South America.

“We were in Lima Peru for the Copa Merconorte, a tournament organized by CONMEBOL, to which we were invited because we had won the 2000 MLS Cup,” said then assistant coach Brian Bliss. “We were scheduled to play a group stage match against Sporting Cristal on Wednesday, Sept. 12 and after talking to the league and to the players we went ahead and played the game.”

League-leading Miami Fusion was about to embark on a trip to New York and Washington D.C. Fusion defender Brian Dunseth, who had joined the team midway through the 2001 season and midfielder Pablo Mastroeni recall their experience.

“We were getting ready to go on a two-game road trip to New York and DC,” Dunseth said. “We showed up at Lockhart stadium at around 8:30 a.m. ready to leave all together from there. I was looking forward to it because any time we went to New York, our coach, Ray Hudson, would take us straight to Central Park for a jog and a stretch, or in the case of the DC trip we would go by all the monuments while stretching and jogging and learn about the culture of United States.” 

“When we got to the locker room we heard something was up,” Dunseth continued. “We had heard a plane had hit one of the towers but we weren’t sure what size it was. As more people started filing in people were still getting their stuff together and we saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television and at that point we knew something was terribly wrong. Everyone started calling their families and loved ones to let them know that they weren’t on the flight to New York yet.”

“I woke up and turned on CNN and saw the first tower smoking,” Mastroeni remembered. “Then I saw the second plane hit the tower. I was so oblivious to the enormity of the situation that I was already making excuses in my mind to why I wasn’t going on the trip to New York. As a matter of fact I didn’t even pack a bag. While I was driving to the stadium I was still trying to conjure up an excuse as to why I wasn’t leaving as, like I said, I was oblivious to the magnitude of the whole situation.  I tend to exasperate things like this and couldn’t see past the situation. In my mind the plane I was going to be on was going to be attacked as well and I couldn’t see past enjoying the game or going off to the next game. I was thinking I wanted to be home, safe and with my family.”

The New York/New Jersey Metrostars’ offices were located in New Jersey right across the Hudson River. Philadelphia Union Chief Executive Officer and Operating Partner, and New Jersey native Nick Sakiewicz, was GM of the Metrostars back then.

“Our offices in New Jersey overlooked lower Manhattan and we had a full view of the twin towers on that day from across the river,” Sakiewicz said. “When the first plane hit some of my staff saw it and thought it was an accident and alerted me from the other side of our offices. Initially everyone thought it was an accident but my COO at the time who was a former Army Ranger immediately said ‘planes don't fly into those types of building, this is an attack’. We all gathered to watch the one tower smoldering and then all of the sudden we saw the second plane go into tower two. I remember that day like it was yesterday. The looks on people's faces and the profound impact it would have in the weeks and months afterwards is something none of us will forget.”

To say that the tragedy affected people around the world directly or indirectly would be an understatement. A large number of people had strong ties to people involved in these tragic events.

“It’s hard to believe that the tragic events of 9/11 were 10 years ago,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “It feels like it was just yesterday. With the MLS offices based in New York and as a native New Yorker, this devastating and unfathomable tragedy truly hit home.  My brother works for the New York Police Department and the League has long supported the New York Fire Department soccer team, so we honored both groups several times during the 2001 season.  I still keep in touch with many members of the Fire Department team, who still mourn the loss of several of their members who were first responders on September 11th.”

“One of our volunteers that delivers bread everyday to the restaurant at the top of one of the towers went missing for a few days,” Sakiewicz continued. “We finally were able to track him down. He left the restaurant at 7:30am that morning after his delivery. Many of us knew friends and neighbors that perished that day. We immediately started gathering water and supplies to take to ground zero. The following day I grabbed two team vans and a few staff to deliver water and supplies that we heard were needed. I got as close at 8th Avenue and 20th Street where there was a supply drop off point but really couldn't do much more from that point.”

Dunseth recounted, “[Fusion defender] Carlos Llamosa was quite shaken as he was reminded of when he worked at the World Trade Center in 1993 during the time of that year’s bombing. Also [midfielder] Jimmy Rooney had a brother who was a New York Police Officer so it hit close to home for us.”

“I went to New York a month later and saw what happened with my own eyes and I was in shock,” said Warzycha. “I lost a friend who worked on the 11th floor of the World Trade Center that day. I spoke to his twin brother at the time and he told me he wasn’t supposed to go to work that day but went in to fill for someone else.”

A decision was made two days later, after a conference call with all the teams, to end the season at that moment and resume playoffs as scheduled giving the MLS community time to grieve.

Commissioner Garber’s statement at the time:

“Major League Soccer shares the grief of the nation at Tuesday’s appalling tragedy.  As we all mourn, MLS believes it is appropriate to take some time to acknowledge the nation’s loss and honor the victims and heroes.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of those who have been affected. MLS has decided to cancel the six remaining games of the league’s regular season.  In addition the previously postponed four regular season games will not be rescheduled.”

Sigi Schmid, who coached the LA Galaxy to the MLS Cup final that year agrees that ending the season then was fitting.

“I thought it was the appropriate thing to do,” Schmid said.  “Based upon all the people who lost loved ones in the attacks and the mood of the country at the time. On my youngest son Kyle’s soccer team, a brother of one of his teammates was killed in one of the towers. He was employed by one of the financial firms. Knowing that family and seeing how it affected them made 9/11 a lot more personal. It was a proper response from the league.”

Mastroeni agrees “Stopping the season was necessary as it put life in perspective. It was bigger than the game, there were people who had lost loved ones in such a tragic event and I remember [coach] Ray Hudson telling us specifically: ‘This is the time where you go back and spend time with your families and let them know that you love them.’ I think that was really important for all of us to feel that grieving.”

“There were many discussions on what was the right thing to do. It was a very awkward time and no one was sure how to handle the many concerns and emotions of the day” Sakiewicz echoed “In retrospect I think it was handled very well and sensitive to the magnitude and horror of the destruction. There was great leadership from the League office and each of the teams throughout the League. We told the team to take off to sort through all of it because many of them had relatives and friends that could have been affected. We were in constant communication with players, coaches and back office staff over the next few days. It was one of the most challenging times during my management career because it was such a unique circumstance that no training in the world can give you to prepare.”

The league resumed play nine days after the attacks with the MLS Cup quarterfinals.

On the Monday before the playoffs were set to begin, then Deputy MLS Commissioner Ivan Gazidis said: “I think that the best way we can serve the country now is by getting back on our feet.  This is the first time that I can remember that being involved in soccer has felt like a duty to me.  I do believe it is a sacred duty and it has never been more important than it is now.  I want to speak for all of Major League Soccer when I promise that we will fulfill that duty to the utmost of our ability.  It is the right time to return to work, and we will finish our season unbowed. That is the best way that we can help the nation right now and that is the thought that is driving us forward.”

Some players, like former San Jose Earthquakes and current DC United midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, chose to pay tribute in their own way.

“I started wearing a ‘One Love’ shirt after the tragedies because of the chaos in the world,” De Rosario said. “I was trying to help unite people and bring people together rather than make [the world] more divided. That was the whole reason I wore the shirt and I think it definitely helped bring a lot of people together- the soccer community, Americans and eventually the world.”

But everyone, from front office staff to coaches and players agreed that resuming play was the right thing to do.

“As coaches and players we were doing our job, which is to play soccer and to entertain the fans,” said Schmid. “I felt it was great for us to be able to provide something to allow people’s minds to get away from what had happened. I also believed it was our obligation to do the best we could every time we stepped on the field because that was our way of paying tribute to those involved in the tragedy.”

“We had patches put on our jerseys and your typical moment of silence,” Dunseth recalls. “At that point I think the thought process as a team was that we didn’t want to go over the top with tributes because it was still fresh in everyone’s mind but we wanted to give fans a gateway out for those two hours, something else to focus on, something fun as opposed to thinking about where we were as a country, with everyone scared of flying and everyone looking over their shoulder.”

“It was important to get back on the horse and realize that we couldn’t dwell on for much longer,” Mastroeni remembers. “We needed to show that we were a country that is united, powerful and would overcome these events that were so unfortunate but that brought us together as a team and as a country.”

Sakiewicz  concurs.

“First off we were all just thankful to have all of our organization intact and that no one was directly affected by the tragedy,” he said. “I remember that at each game there was acknowledgment of the victims and we were just honored to be representing the New York/New Jersey region in the playoffs. The magnitude of the situation was far more important than the playoff competition and while we all tried to motivate ourselves it was just impossible to stop thinking every minute and every day about what happened, why it happened and what the future would look like as a result.”

In the last ten years since the attacks the world’s landscape has changed drastically, altering forever the way people approach public events, travel and tourism but one thing is certain. People will never forget that terrible day in 2001 and will continue to honor the memory of those lost for years to come.

“MLS is proud to support Mayor Bloomberg and the City of New York’s efforts to build the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan and are equally proud to honor the victims and heroes who lost their lives 10 years ago.” – MLS Commissioner Don Garber

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