When Santiago Solari was named interim manager by Real Madrid on Monday, it wasn't difficult to remember his accomplished career as a player. From his time at River Plate, to his tenure as a role player on Real Madrid's Galactico teams, to his stint at Inter Milan, Solari's career took him around the world, but what goes often overlooked is that his journey from his childhood in Rosario, Argentina to the Bernabeu included a very early and important detour through the United States.
Before Solari starred at River Plate, was capped by Argentina, or helped set up Zinedine Zidane's timeless Champions League winner in 2002, he was a skinny 17-year-old kid playing Division 3 college soccer for a small college just 30 minutes from Atlantic City, New Jersey. Those fortunate enough to see him play during that time remember a highly skilled and intelligent player who was technically gifted and read the game at a different level than his opponents, who often resorted to fouling him rather than trying to cope with his superior ability.
"Obviously he was at a different level with his runs, and a lot of stuff where he was playing chess and a lot of us were playing checkers," Tim Lenahan, who was Solari's coach at Richard Stockton College, told Goal.
How did Solari wind up playing small-time college soccer in America?
It was the summer of 1994, and the World Cup was kicking off in the United States that year. The Saudi Arabia national team settled into the campus of a small New Jersey college located an hour southeast of Philadelphia. Stockton University, known then as Richard Stockton College, was chosen as the base camp for Saudi Arabia, coached at the time by Jorge "El Indio" Solari, and assisted by his brother Eduardo. Lenahan was a part-time head soccer coach at Richard Stockton then, and took a leave of absence from his full-time job as an IT professional to manage Saudi Arabia's training camp site.
During the five-week training camp, Lenahan and Eduardo developed a friendship, helped by what wound up being a successful World Cup run for Saudi Arabia, which played its group matches in Washington D.C. and at the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. During that time, Lenahan suggested to Eduardo that his 17-year-old son Santiago spend a semester attending college at Richard Stockton, playing soccer for Lenahan, and experiencing a different culture before jumping into the world of professional soccer. The Solaris liked the idea and decided to give it a try.
"It was not a soccer experience," Santiago Solari told Soccer America in 2001 of his time at Richard Stockton, "but it was an experience about life, about meeting people, about knowing a different culture and different ways of thinking. It opened up my head."
The experience had a lasting impact on Solari, who served as an English-language World Cup analyst during the 2014 World Cup.
"I loved the idea of studying in the United States and learning English better," Solari said. "I had a really good time. I was there for three or four months and played for the team at Stockton. I had to come back because I had an opportunity to play for River Plate in the reserves. But the experience was really good for me."
"Even to make that decision at that age, to come so you can improve your English and grow and be independent for the first time, even to make that decision puts him light years above other kids," Lenahan said.
"Being able to come here at 17 and to grow in a nurturing environment before going through the pro system, I think helped him so when he made the moves later on from Rosario to Buenos Aires, then to Madrid, he was able to handle those transitions better."
Lenahan knew he had a special talent on his hands back in 1994, but didn't know just how good Solari would be.
"I thought he would go down and be a great pro in Argentina," Lenahan said. "Did I think he and I would be lifting the Champions League trophy after he just played 90 minutes and assisted on the greatest goal in Champions League history eight years later? No, I didn't know that."
Solari did show Lenahan a glimpse of the drive that would help him achieve so much success, even when he was just 18 years old. Lenahan remembers Solari responding to having missed a clear look at goal in a close win by taking to the practice field alone the next day and practicing the same shot he missed over and over.
"The game was on a Friday night and he took the ball bag out the next day and I don't know how many shots he shot from that same spot," Lenahan said. "Eight years later I'm watching the Champions League, he subs in against Porto and gets that same shot and tucks it right in the corner.
"The old adage is good players do it till they get it right, the great ones do it till they can't get it wrong. Santiago had that drive."
Now in his 18th season as the head coach of Division 1 Northwestern University, Lenahan has remained in close contact with Solari, visiting Madrid every year. The two also crossed paths in Chicago in 2013, when Lionel Messi held a charity match there and wound up needing players to fill out the teams.
Lenahan reached out to some of his former Northwestern players, who wound up playing next to the likes of Messi, Thierry Henry and Solari. It was a match best remembered for an audacious bicycle kick scored by one of Lenahan's former players, Matt Eliason. Lenahan has produced a documentary about Eliason's goal and subsequent journey to revive his professional soccer career.
Lenahan has even established a Real Madrid connection to his current college team, with freshman forward Jose Del Valle joining Lenahan's team from Real Madrid's academy after meeting him during one of Lenahan's visits to Spain.
As for Solari's new role as interim coach of Real Madrid, Lenahan is confident that his old friend is up to the challenge, even if the team he has inherited is a flawed one.
"It's a little different than Zidane because ZIdane had a pre-made team that wasn't achieving," Lenahan said. "This team may be underachieving a bit, but I don't think it's the class of the league either.
"I think he'll treat the players with respect, and I think they'll play for him. If it's only a matter of a couple of weeks or months, then it's still an unbelievable experience for his career, and if not at Real Madrid he'll be a first-division coach somewhere in the world.
"I'm not ruling out somewhere west of Spain. [David] Beckham was a teammate of his so who knows," Lenahan said, referring to Beckham's ownership of an MLS team in Miami that will begin play in 2020. Solari and Beckham were teammates for two seasons at Real Madrid.
While Lenahan takes great pride in having coached a UEFA Champions League winner, he isn't exactly trying to take credit for Solari's success.
"My running joke is because of my coaching he made the first team at River Plate at 19," Lenahan said. "Because without my coaching he would have made it at 18."