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Real Madrid’s interim manager played college soccer in South Jersey

Santiago Solari spent the fall of 1994 learning English and playing soccer at Stockton University in Galloway Township, N.J.

Santiago Solari with his former college coach and friend Tim Lenahan, a Pine Hill, N.J. native who has coached at Northwestern since 2001

During the summer of 1994, Santiago Solari was a promising 17-year-old from Argentina who was part of a training squad that helped the Saudi Arabia National Team prepare for the World Cup on the campus of what is now known as Stockton University.

More than two decades later he’s an interim manager of Real Madrid with Division III college soccer on his resume.

That’s because his visit to South Jersey, where his uncle Jorge Solari and father Eugenio Solari were coaching the Saudi team, ended up stretching through to the fall when he enrolled as a student and played for Stockton’s soccer team.

The idea for Solari to attend Stockton for a semester before turning pro came out of Solari and his parents getting to know Tim Lenahan, Stockton’s head coach at the time, who was working at the Saudi camp and traveled with the team during their run to the Round of 16.

“He’s a smart guy, he had a vision for himself that was beyond just I’m going to play soccer here and be great at it; I think he already knew that but he was looking for any advantage he could find and one of those was he couldn’t speak English very well,” Lenahan said. “I don’t know that his soccer grew during that three months that he was here, but he certainly grew.”

During his one season in South Jersey, Solari scored eight goals and had 15 assists as part of one of the most dominant duos in Division III that season with Pete Schneiders, who led the team with 14 goals and 16 assists. The Ospreys finished the 1994 season 15-5-0 and while Solari went on to have a long professional career with some of the biggest teams in the world, he never forgot his American coach, who since 2001 has been the head coach at Northwestern University.

“It’s just been a really fun relationship and the fact that (him becoming Real Madrid’s interim manager is) bringing a little notoriety to Stockton right now is really cool,” said Lenahan, a native of Pine Hill, N.J., who coached at Lafayette College before heading to Chicago.

Lenahan has visited Solari in Spain several times and the two coaches regularly exchange texts. In 2013, a team with several of Lenahan’s Northwestern players played Solari, Lionel Messi and a squad of pros in a charity match at Soldier Field (the event inspired the short documentary film Messi and Me).

“I sent him a picture recently of what I thought was a bad call and he texted me back ‘yeah, the referees are terrible there, remember when I got taken down three yards inside the box and they moved it outside the box?’ Lenahan said. “He still remembers that.”

Jim McCombs, who was a senior goalkeeper on the Ospreys in 1994, remembers his former teammate’s “amazing first touch” and “incredible accuracy in passing and driving balls.” He was helping out Lenahan at Stockton that summer when Solari was part of the Saudi training squad.

“When matched up against the men, at age 17, you could tell he was a special player,” McCombs said. “I haven’t had contact with Santiago since he left Stockton, but I’m extremely happy for him and his family. He was a respectful, courteous, intelligent, kind young man and I’m sure that those qualities, along with the incredible Soccer IQ has elevated him to his position today.”

Solari remains the only former U.S. soccer player to play in and win a Champions League final. His professional career stretched 16 years with stops at River Plate, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and San Lorenzo. He started coaching in 2013 in Real Madrid’s academy and was appointed interim manager earlier this week after the dismissal of Julen Lopetegui.