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 in the B2 basement of the tower, the same one where Yousef and Ismoil parked the van.
As was the custom on Fridays, 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 paychecks.
“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 the 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 nitrate-hydrogen gas, a fertilizer that exploded on the second level of the underground parking complex – the same floor where he worked.
“When I heard it had been a terrorist attack I stood [still]; 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 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.
Back then, Llamosa had just reconnected with futbol after his arrival to the United States.
Escaping the terrorist attack allowed Llamosa to continue playing fútbol.
“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 1.6 million other Colombians did then, he left his country, which was immersed in an economic crisis and a 40-year 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 on the pipeline to become a player for DC United, a founding team of the newly formed Major League Soccer.
“He was very smooth, always in the right place at the right time.”
“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 on 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 fell in love with him in his first years at DC United. He was an important player.”
His rapid ascent ran into a roadblock shortly before the 1998 World Cup. Steve Sampson, the national coach at the time, invited him to join the team traveling to compete in the tournament.
Llamosa, a permanent resident of the United States, was one of the best defenders in the MLS, but he was not naturalized, and began the process 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.
Llamosa would become a key player for the United States in the following World Cup cycle.
That meant that Llamosa had to wait until his citizenship was confirmed 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 U.S. team in October 1998 and called him for an international game: a friendly against Australia.
Llamosa would become a key player for the United States in 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 quarterfinals.
Fast forward to 2016. 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 about not playing for Colombia.”
“I don’t have any regrets about 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 North American Soccer League 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.”