9/11 Memorial: MLSers recall when soccer returned to NY

NEW YORK — Everyone has at least one detail from that time they will never forget.

Daniel Hernandez remembers an endless column of rescue vehicles racing past him on a New Jersey highway, bound for the Lincoln Tunnel and the black smoke clouding Lower Manhattan.

Danny Califf recalls an eerie emptiness, and a disturbingly close call.

Kevin Hartman remembers armored escorts, commemorative patches and an opportunity to help people forget their worries, if only for a couple of hours.

New Yorker Mike Petke (above) has dozens of these details — and he remembers them “like they happened yesterday.”

In remembrance of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, MLS is partnering with the 9/11 Memorial. For more information, please go to:

All four men played in Major League Soccer’s first game back in the New York area after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and while they have some vivid memories of the time, few of them are about the soccer game. 

The match in question was the second game of a quarterfinal series between the LA Galaxy and the MetroStars. Hartman and Califf were members of the Galaxy; Hernandez and Petke played for the MetroStars.

MetroStars rookie Rodrigo Faria scored two goals to lead his team to a 4-1 comeback win at Giants Stadium, not that anyone really remembers the box score. 

“I don’t remember many details,” says Petke, a 14-year MLS veteran who retired in 2010 to become manager of business operations for the Red Bulls. “The one thing I do remember is wearing an NYPD hat. And an NYPD shirt and walking out for warmup.”

Sixty New York City police officers and 343 firefighters perished in the attacks.

“That was very important for me since my brother was a former NYPD officer and he moved down to Virginia and he was a police officer there,” Petke continues. “So I’ve always had a special place for law enforcement in my heart.”

Current FC Dallas goalkeeper Hartman recalls that both teams wore commemorative patches on their jerseys, and the words of then-LA coach Sigi Schmid ahead of the match.

“He did a good job framing the game as us providing spectators and soccer fans of the nation with a mental break, because things were obviously very mentally stressful at that point in time,” Hartman says. “I know it was just a small token, but certainly there’s something there about sports and what they provide to society. We really felt like we were part of something that would take some of the stress away from people’s daily lives.”

Hernandez may not recall his game-winning assist from the game, but like just about everyone else, he will never forget where he was when he heard the news two weeks earlier, on Sept 11.

“We were just walking out the door for practice,” he says. The MetroStars trained at Kean University in New Jersey, roughly 20 minutes from Ground Zero.

Practice was immediately canceled, and Hernandez remembers dropping off teammate Ross Paule at his hotel, which was even closer to the city, and seeing the black smoke. Then, driving west, into New Jersey, he recalls seeing “easily 100 rescue vehicles — police cars, ambulances, fire trucks — all rushing towards the city from the opposite direction.”

Petke remembers many of the roads being immediately closed.

“With armed State Troopers at each exit and entrance ramp," he recalls, "Which is a pretty grim reality to find yourself in all of a sudden.”

Califf, now with the Philadelphia Union, was across the country in LA when he got the news about 9/11, but it was no less harrowing for him. He and the Galaxy had played the New England Revolution on the Saturday before the attacks, and then flown from Boston to Los Angeles on a direct flight out of Logan International Airport. Logan, of course, was the origination point of American Airlines Flight 11 — direct from Boston to LA — which was the first plane to hit the Towers.

After being alerted to the events by a phone call from his mother, Califf tuned into the TV coverage. As horrific as the images were, he says, “I distinctly remember feeling unbelievably fortunate. We flew home on that flight one day earlier. That could have been us.”

Just two weeks later, Califf and Hartman boarded a plane to fly back across the country to take on the MetroStars.

“There was nobody in the airport,” Califf recalls. “I couldn’t believe how empty it was. That felt really weird.”

Adds Hartman, “We had an armored escort pretty much everywhere we went. It was a little bit nerve-wracking.”

Of course they got to the game without incident and, for a couple of hours at least, they helped do exactly what Sigi Schmid hoped they would do: offer a few hours of reprieve.