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Timbers assistant coach Carlos Llamosa cleaned halls, played in a World Cup and dodged death on unlikely path to Portland

The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. — Jamie Goldberg The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Feb. 13--The shock waves from the massive explosion shook Carlos Llamosa's body as he stood frozen in the doorway of a Chinese restaurant in Lower Manhattan.

Terrorists had driven a van packed with 1,500 pounds of urea nitrate and hydrogen-gas cylinders into a public parking garage beneath the World Trade Center before detonating the bomb, killing six people and injuring over a thousand.

It was only by sheer chance that Llamosa wasn't inside that garage.

Shortly after immigrating to the United States from Colombia, Llamosa had taken a job as a janitor in the World Trade Center. His locker room was in the B2 basement of the North Tower, the same location where the van had been parked. But Llamosa and his colleagues were granted an extra hour for lunch to deposit their pay checks on Fridays and were two blocks away when the bomb went off.

Still, the memory of that February 1993 attack has remained seared in Llamosa's mind over the last 25 years as his path has taken him away from that humble job at the World Trade Center to a career in Major League Soccer, a spot on the World Cup stage, and now the role of assistant coach with the Portland Timbers.

"Thank God for me and many, many people in the building that it happened on Friday at lunch time," Llamosa said. "If we were in that locker room at that moment, the story would be very different."

AN UNLIKELY PATH

A native of Palmira, Colombia, Llamosa began his professional soccer career at the age of 17 when he joined local lower division club Colmena. From there, he moved up the ranks in Colombia, earning a spot with Deportivo Cali's reserve team before moving to first division side Huila in 1990.

But when his club failed to grant him a transfer in 1991, Llamosa made the abrupt decision to retire from professional soccer. At the age of 22, he gave away all his soccer gear -- down to his cleats and shin guards -- and left Colombia to join his mother and seven siblings in Queens, New York.

There he became a janitor at the World Trade Center before later taking a job as a bouncer at a night club in Queens.

But things changed quickly for Llamosa after the 1994 World Cup. Suddenly, soccer started gaining traction in the United States and Llamosa was invited to try out for a professional team called the New York Centaurs. After two seasons with the Centaurs, he was drafted by D.C. United in the 1997 Major League Soccer Supplemental Draft.

"It was a new league with a lot of expectations," Llamosa said. "Even though there were only 10 teams at that time, there was a lot of quality, a lot of good players. Luckily, I was drafted by a team that had a lot of success early on."

Llamosa fought his way into the starting lineup in his first season with D.C. United and was a key defender for the club as it won the 1997 MLS Cup. Soon after, he was approached by then-U.S. National Team coach Steve Sampson, who offered him the opportunity to represent the United States in the World Cup.

Llamosa immediately agreed, but the tedious process of going from Green Card holder to U.S. Citizen was time consuming. He missed his chance to compete at the 1998 World Cup and instead watched from his couch as the squad finished last in its group in France.

But four years later, Llamosa finally claimed his opportunity to represent the USA on the world stage. He was part of the 2002 World Cup team that beat Portugal and Mexico to make a run to the quarterfinals before eventually falling 1-0 to Germany. It was the first and only time that the USA has reached the quarterfinals in a World Cup.

"To be part of the U.S. team that advanced to the quarterfinals in a World Cup, it's something that I could never have imagined when I first came to the U.S.," Llamosa said. "That was the best experience of my career."

AN OLD FRIEND

Llamosa was one of the first people that Giovanni Savarese called when he took over as head coach of the New York Cosmos in 2013.

The two former soccer cohorts had been teammates back in 1992 for an amateur club called the Brooklyn Italians. They had gone on to compete against one another for rival teams in Major League Soccer, with Llamosa anchoring the backline for D.C. United and Savarese playing as a center forward for the New York MetroStars.

After their playing careers were over, Savarese worked in youth development with the New York Red Bulls and then Cosmos, while Llamosa became an assistant coach for Chivas USA. Now, Savarese wanted his old friend to join him as his assistant coach with the Cosmos.

"I think when you play the game and you were successful, like Carlos, I think players recognize that and they respect that because they know you've been there and you've done it," Savarese said. "I think that respect in the players is important to a coach."

Llamosa spent four rewarding years with the Cosmos, using the expertise that he had gained over a long and notable career to help the club earn three North American Soccer League titles. In 2017, he left the Cosmos to return to MLS as an assistant coach with the New England Revolution.

But in December, Llamosa once again got a call from his old friend. Savarese had just joined the Timbers as their new head coach and wanted Llamosa to rejoin him as an assistant.

"He understands the way I work, we see the game similarly and he's very knowledgeable about MLS," Savarese said. "As a defender, he can help specifically in that area as well. For all those reasons, it was important for him to be with me here."

During a recent Timbers practice session, Llamosa and Savarese pulled on orange training pinnies and joined the players for a short-sided game. Llamosa tracked his man as only a seasoned pro could and even dove in for a tackle when the moment called for it. When he walked off the field, he had a huge smile on his face.

Twenty-five years ago, Llamosa was given a new lease on life when he stepped away from his office in the World Trade Center moments before a deadly terrorist attack.

He has cherished every moment.

"I never saw myself retiring from the field," Llamosa said. "Soccer is what I enjoyed the most in my life since I was a kid. I want to continue doing this for as long as I can."

-- Jamie Goldberg -- jgoldberg@oregonian.com

503-853-3761 -- @jamiebgoldberg

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