Carlos Llamosa left Colombia thinking his fútbol days were over, but instead he wound up representing the United States in the World Cup.
It was a second chance.
Carlos Llamosa escaped the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by pure coincidence and thus continued on his improbable path to become a soccer star in the United States.
Llamosa, then 23, was out for lunch when Ramzi Yousef and Eyad Ismoil pulled a yellow Ryder van into the public parking garage beneath the World Trade Center. Llamosa was a janitor at the B2 basement of the tower, the same one where Yousef and Ismoil parked the van.
As it was the custom every Friday, World Trade Center maintenance employees took a two-hour lunch break. The additional 60 minutes allowed them to go to the bank and deposit their checks.
“Any other day, I would have gone back to work. But it was payday and we went out for lunch to enjoy that extra hour,” he recalls. “I was barely walking into a Chinese food restaurant when I heard the bang.”
He rushed out to find chaos unfolding. Later he would find out that the Ryder truck Yousef and Ismoil left below the tower was loaded with 1,336 pounds of urea nitrate-hydrogen, a fertilizer, that exploded on the second level of underground parking, on the same floor where he worked.
“When I heard it had been a terrorist attack I stood chill; I was in shock because I could have been there,” he says. “There were people there that I knew, and back then we never thought something like that could happen in this country, much less in a place like the World Trade Center.”
Llamosa didn’t know it then, but his fortuitous escape that day allowed him to continue playing fútbol soccer in the fields of Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, where he built a reputation that, one kick at a time, took him to play for the United States in the World Cup.
Found in the Park
Escaping the terrorist attack allowed Llamosa to continue playing fútbol, a sport that he had recently reconnected with after his arrival into the United States.
“A day before my trip to New York, I gave away all of my fútbol gear: my shoes, my shin guards, everything… I would tell my friends that I was giving everything away because nobody played fútbol in the United States. There was no professional league and my brothers living here already never mentioned anything about fútbol,” he recalls.
Llamosa had a modest career as a futbolista in his native Colombia. In 1991, like 1.6m other Colombians did around those years, he left a country immersed in an economic crisis that was in the fourth decade of civil war.
He settled in Jackson Heights-Corona, Queens, where his brothers lived, believing his fútbol days were over. But Llamosa didn’t know that he had landed in one of the fútbol epicenters of his new country: Flushing Meadow Park in Queens.
“When I found the park, I had to buy all my gear again to play there,” he says.
His talent and fierceness caught the attention of the US soccer world and in a couple of years he was in the pipeline to become a player for DC United, a founding team of the newly formed Major League Soccer.
“I went on a Saturday to Flushing Meadows park to watch a game and I saw Carlos playing for a team called Los Criollos,” recalls Joe Barone, who back then was coach of the semi pro squad Brooklyn Italians. “He was very smooth, always in right place at the right time. He was very good with the ball. And I brought him to play in Brooklyn at a very high level and his characteristics came out even more.”
But that was not it. In the Spring of 1997, Llamosa found himself in the radar of DC United coach Bruce Arena.
“We were looking for a center back. And as we observed, Carlos was brought to our attention by his play,” Arena recalls. “We got Carlos, and we kind of fell in love with him in his first years in DC United. He was an important player.”
Red, White and Blue
His rapid ascent ran into a roadblock shortly before the 1998 World Cup. Steve Sampson, the national coach at the time, met with him to invite him to join the team travelling to compete in the tournament.
Llamosa, a permanent resident of the United States, was one of the best defenders in the MLS but he had not naturalized and his process began rather late for the summer competition. FIFA regulations only allow for players with a declared nationality to play for a national team in the World Cup.
That meant that Llamosa had to wait until his citizenship came to finally wear the Red, White and Blue; and that happened after the tournament. A few months after the competition, his coach at DC United, Bruce Arena, took the reins of the US team and called him for his international game: a friendly against Australia.
Llamosa would become a key player for the United States during the following World Cup cycle, playing almost 30 international games. His dream of playing a World Cup game became true in 2002, when Team USA had its best performance in recent history making it all the way to quarter finals.
A Cosmic Figure
A long ball flies over the midfield and Llamosa pushes back screaming directions to the defender line during a practice session of the New York Cosmos, where he is now an assistant coach.
“I don’t have any regrets for not playing for Colombia,” he says. “I still believe I made the right decision to play for the United States.”
Llamosa, now 46, has been part of the coaching staff that has managed the Cosmos to two NASL championships in three years.
“I was very proud. Just a few years before I was a bouncer at a New York City nightclub, and there I was playing in the World Cup,” he says. “That’s how I went from the fields in Flushing to the United States National team.”