Tim Lenahan still vividly remembers the late-summer day in 1994 when he drove to Philadelphia International Airport to pick up Santiago Solari.
Lenahan, a South Jersey native, knew this was no ordinary incoming freshman. The then-coach of the men’s soccer team at Richard Stockton College (now Stockton University), Lenahan had spent that summer working with Saudi Arabia’s men’s national team, which used Stockton as a training base for the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Santiago’s uncle Jorge, who played for Argentina in the 1960s, was Saudi Arabia’s manager. Santiago — just 17 at the time, a year younger than most freshmen — was a notable prospect in his native Argentina.
Now here was Santiago coming to Galloway Township, N.J., for a taste of American college life before heading off into the world of professional soccer.
“I still didn’t believe it was happening until I saw those long locks get off the airplane, and there he was,” Lenahan told The Inquirer, referring to Solari’s head of hair that remains well-coiffed to this day.
Neither he nor Lenahan knew where their lives would go in those 27 years.
‘A family friend’
After one season at Stockton, Solari went back to Argentina and turned pro with Newell’s Old Boys, a club whose famous alumni include Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Mauricio Pochettino, Marcelo Bielsa, and Gabriel Heinze.
Solari later played for Argentina’s River Plate, Italy’s Inter Milan, and reached the pinnacle of the sport with Spanish giant Real Madrid by winning the 2002 UEFA Champions League title. He notably helped set up the final-winning goal with a looping pass over Bayer Leverkusen’s defense to Roberto Carlos, who then crossed for Zinedine Zidane’s legendary volley.
A few years after Solari hung up his cleats, he began a coaching career that took him back to Real and now to Mexico’s Club América. He has also done TV work over the years for ESPN, both in the United States and internationally.
Meanwhile, Lenahan’s coaching career spanned eight years at Stockton (1990-97), three at Lafayette (1998-2000), and 20 at Northwestern that concluded this spring. But for all the players he has coached and sent on in life, he still has a strong bond with Solari.
“He has become a family friend,” Solari told The Inquirer. “Tim is a solid man that I look up to. He has had a wonderful career and has coached generations of players. It takes grit, consistency, and a love of the game.”
Lenahan has traveled around the world to watch Solari play, including that 2002 Champions League Final.
“I’ve gotten to experience amazing things because of him,” Lenahan said. “The college coaching experience, you know, if you do it, right, I think that you’re going to have those relationships. And we just always hit it off from Day 1.”
Big stage, small world
This week, their bond has been renewed in a most unlikely way. Solari is back in Philadelphia to manage Club América against the Union, the closest American professional team to Stockton’s campus, in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals on Wednesday at Subaru Park (9 p.m., FS1, TUDN).
On Tuesday, Solari returned to Stockton alongside Lenahan to see the campus and meet with the current Ospreys team. It was Solari’s first time back on campus since his teenage days.
“Fantastic, isn’t it? After all these years, who would have thought?” he said.
It turns out that a guy from Oreland might have thought it. One who lived in Chicago at the same time as Lenahan, and befriended him on Sundays spent watching Eagles games from afar.
Last month, that guy walked up to Solari on the sideline of North America’s most famous soccer stadium, the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
“As I went to approach him,” Union manager Jim Curtin said, “he was the first to speak, and he said, ‘Tim Lenahan says you’re a great guy, and that you guys spent a lot of time together in Chicago.’”
Curtin was floored. Lenahan, watching from home, was beaming.
“Meeting Jim Curtin was great,” Solari said. “I have huge respect for him. The game at the Azteca Stadium was very much enjoyed by all the fans, and American soccer was represented by the very best.”
Curtin said “Solari couldn’t have been more humble, quiet — just a nice, soft-spoken guy. He said he loves our team, [and] it’s amazing the accomplishment that we’ve made it this far.”
And Solari knew his team’s 2-0 win in the first game of the two-legged tie didn’t come easily.
“After the final whistle, he [Solari] said, ‘At [your] home, it’s going to be a different story — you guys are going to be the ones that have the ball and take the game to us,’” Curtin said.
How did Curtin meet Lenahan? The connection came from Jesse Marsch, the current manager of German side RB Leipzig, and a teammate of Curtin’s with the Chicago Fire in the early 2000s. Marsch became Lenahan’s volunteer assistant thanks to an old friend from Princeton: Mitch Henderson, who at the time was an assistant men’s basketball coach under Bill Carmody.
Henderson, who played for Carmody’s Princeton team that rose to No. 8 in the nation in 1998 (and is now the Tigers’ head coach), introduced Marsch to Lenahan. Marsch then brought Curtin and some other Fire players up to Northwestern’s campus.
(Marsch, by the way, has a big game of his own on Wednesday: his first UEFA Champions League contest in charge of RB Leipzig, which visits English superpower Manchester City.)
They all hit it off easily. And the group grew to include Curtin’s wife, a Penn State alum. When the Nittany Lions football team visited Northwestern, that was a day out for everyone.
“Tim’s a great mentor of mine,” Curtin said. “A great coach, and [has] done a ton for building the program at Northwestern from almost nothing.”
Lenahan has enjoyed watching Curtin flourish as a manager.
“Just a great guy, and I love how direct he is,” Lenahan said. “The players know he cares about them. It’s just exactly who he is, and exactly who, you know, we are in Philadelphia — there’s really no B.S. And I’m just really happy to see all his successes.”
Between his ESPN work and his current job, Solari has seen the growth of the Union, its youth academy, and others like it at clubs across the U.S. They know about European-based ex-Union players Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg) and Mark McKenzie (Genk) in Mexico, and Solari knows about Quinn Sullivan, Paxten Aaronson, and the new generation of young Union players who are now in the headlines.
“American soccer can only grow,” Solari said. “Football is a phenomenal sport that’s finding its way into Americans’ hearts thanks to the hard work of managers like Tim Lenahan and Jim Curtin. It is extremely exciting to have been a witness to the improvements and developments that started to take place 25 years ago [when MLS launched].”
Solari has also kept an eye on Stockton over the years, happily helping to promote the university and its men’s soccer team. The last page of the program’s media guide is all about his one year at the school, noting he was the New Jersey Athletic Conference’s Rookie of the Year in 1994 and made the all-conference first team. He had eight goals and 15 assists, the latter ranking No. 4 in Ospreys history for a single season.
But Solari’s best memories of Stockton were made off the field. He said “it was an emotional day for me” being back on campus.
“Even though [a student] for a brief time, [Stockton] gave me the perspective that I needed at the time, regarding what it was that I wanted and where I was heading,” he said. “I had a great time playing football for the team, but most importantly, I appreciated the atmosphere of open debate and contrasting ideas that used to be core to American colleges.”
From then to now, Lenahan has cherished Solari being “a smart guy who understood that there were bigger things in life, and in the long term that this experience could help him personally and professionally.”
Neither of them, though, imagined it helping quite like this.