Commentary

Dante Washington on his latest Columbus Crew return, Olympians from his Maryland hometown, and his unique playing career

Dante Washington is the Director of Team Strategic Partnerships and Business for the Columbus Crew, the club with which he spent most of his playing career. A record scorer at Radford University, Washington during his post-playing career earned an MBA in marketing at Ohio State, served as a TV soccer broadcaster, and spent eight years working for Nationwide Insurance.

Now 51, Washington left the outdoor game after playing in the 1992 Olympics for the U.S. U-23s, but returned in 1996 by curious circumstance with MLS's Dallas Burn via the Columbus Crew. He returned twice to Crew as a player, and again when he joined the front office in 2019.

SOCCER AMERICA: Let’s start with something you've been working on recently ... the Crew hosting a girls camp.

DANTE WASHINGTON: A big part of my role is restarting what we do in the youth soccer space. One of the things that we wanted to do was to try a girls-only camp. It's more than just the trend of wanting to promote the girls game that's kind of the latest, hottest thing to do. I live through it personally: I have 9-year-old and 11-year-old daughters and I know that girls want to play with girls.

The Saturday or Sunday before the camp, my 9-year-old daughter says to me, "Daddy, are there going to be any boys there?" I said, "No." And she goes, 'Yay!' A big part of it is that girls want to play with girls. In some ways it was professionally driven but it was also driven by that insight.

SA: What's the mission of the Crew Network, the group of youth clubs attached to the club?

DANTE WASHINGTON: At the highest level, it's about engagement opportunities for young kids playing soccer. We've had different programming before in the youth soccer space and what we're seeing now is an evolution of the thinking regarding business objectives and our philosophy of how we want to operate in youth soccer spaces.

A big part of that is working with the youth soccer clubs. We start in the greater Columbus area, but the idea is to branch out as we can. Maybe 45 minutes outside of Columbus, and then clubs into the Cleveland area. It's really a step-by-step process.

SA: Going back to your own playing days, how does the Crew's approach to reaching young, geographically distant players compare with your own soccer environment?

DANTE WASHINGTON: Growing up in Maryland, I was right between Baltimore and D.C. I could go to a Blast game whenever I wanted. When we had the Diplomats, I could go to a Dips game. Even when we had the APSL — many games I went to were right in my hometown.

For clubs that are outside of the Columbus area, we are still the closest club. And we want them to be Crew fans. There are some people who commute to our matches. It's not going to happen every weekend, but if they can come down when their schedule allows, we want to already have that connection for them.

SA: Describe the soccer culture you grew up in.

DANTE WASHINGTON: I was born in Baltimore but grew up in Columbia, Maryland. It was a planned community — one of the first in the United States. Soccer was the most popular sport by far.

SA: Why was that?

DANTE WASHINGTON: I really have no idea. It was odd.

But everyone grew up with it and played. At the very least, you were aware of soccer because one of your friends played soccer. It was cultural. That's how I ended up doing it — one of my neighborhood friends invited me to a practice and I did well. The coach asked if I wanted to play and I said, "sure!"

So I ran home and told my mom I needed cleats and shinguards because I'm playing soccer. Soccer is the only sport I've played on a team. I played a ton of football and basketball — I may have played more basketball than soccer growing up. I remember one time I skipped soccer practice to play basketball — I walked past my team as they were practicing to go play on the court. What an idiot. Soccer wasn't my favorite sport. I don't know why I didn't play [organized] basketball because I liked it more back then.

SA: Growing up in a planned community?

DANTE WASHINGTON: The whole premise — founded by a guy named James Rouse — is predicated on racial and economic equality. Every neighborhood and street names were named from poems.

From a soccer perspective, Darryl Gee was on the 1980 Olympic team that didn't play because [the USA] boycotted [the USSR-hosted Games [because of its Afghanistan invasion]. Desmond Armstrong was 1988 [Summer Olympics in Seoul], I was 1992 [Olympics in Barcelona] and Clint Peay was 1996 [Olympics in Atlanta]. Clint and I were actually on the same high school team.

SA: We interviewed Clint a few months ago but he never mentioned you.

DANTE WASHINGTON: [Laughs] Yeah, I read that one. Then I ran into Clint in New England and forgot he was a coach at New England too. He saw me in the stadium — I've known him for a while because his oldest brother is one of my best friends. I went to high school with him, he was my college roommate and fraternity brother, saw him when I went home — so I've known Clint forever.

John Ellinger is currently the executive director of one of the youth clubs [Baltimore Armour-Soccer Association of Columbia] Clint and I played in. Kyle Beckerman isn't from Columbia but played on teams from Columbia. So when you ask, "Why did you play soccer?" That kind of gives you an idea — a number of good players we had for a number of years.

SA: How did you get scouted to go to Radford? What sticks out to you looking back on that era of college soccer?

DANTE WASHINGTON: My college coach [Don Staley] likes to tell this story all the time: when he recruited me he was actually recruiting a defender. But when he came into the game and watched me he started to see me as a forward.

I was one of those players who never played ODP — I was always one of the better players on my team, always a starter, did moderately well in high school ... but I only had two full-ride offers coming out of high school.

My parents didn't have a lot of money, one of my good friends from high school was already there, one of my club teammates and his older brother were already there, so I already had people there I knew. It made the decision a no-brainer.'

SA: You are the NCAA’s all-time leader in assists [66]. Was there a play that you ran so consistently and well that it would often lead to goals?

DANTE WASHINGTON:  [laughs] I don't know how that happened. Because obviously I was not known as an assist person. I was a striker. People look at the record books and see I'm the second leading all-time goalscorer in NCAA Division 1 history. I just look at goals [82] ... recently someone told me that I was the all-time leader in assists. I was like, "What?" My coach had to be fabricating some assists or something.

SA: When did you find out?

DANTE WASHINGTON: I'm going to be really honest, I don't know who said it. It was somewhat recent.

SA: Like this year?

DANTE WASHINGTON: Yes. I may have known at some point but until this year I just looked at the total goals and total points. I didn't really look at assists.

I would say this: My college team scored a lot of goals. My freshman year I think two of us were in the top five goalscorers in the nation. There was never a shortage of goalscoring opportunities.

SA: Do you expect your records to be broken?

DANTE WASHINGTON: Absolutely not. I don't say this from a position of arrogance — it's just a function of the way the game has evolved. I scored 20-something goals my freshman year and sophomore year. If that happens today, one of the pro teams is going to draft me. So you're not going to make it all four years.

SA: Biggest change in college soccer between now and your time?

DANTE WASHINGTON: The largest change is the influx of international talent. Marshall won [the NCAA title in 2021] and if you look at their roster it was predominantly international players. Almost half of rosters or more on many teams are international.

SA: What do you remember from the 1992 Olympics?

DANTE WASHINGTON: Well I only played in the first game. And that was unbelievable, to be able to say that I played in the Camp Nou in Barcelona. To this day, I'll never know why I never played again.

In the first round of qualifying, I was the leading scorer and in the second round I was the second leading scorer. ... I had a groin injury that kept out of some games and once we got to Spain I just played that one game.

There was controversy in the first game because Steve Snow was supposed to play and our coach had a plan in place. An injury happened and the substitution schedule got messed up. Steve blew up at the media after the game saying, "Why didn't I play?!"

I left Barcelona with some salt because I was pissed off that I had always been playing and played 90 minutes in the first game. Not that ratings matter but I think I was — I think it was [Germany's] Kicker magazine — had me rated as one of the top players if not the top. I could be completely wrong I don't really remember — but I didn't feel like I had a terrible game. We lost 2-1 to Italy against all these professional players while we were in college.

But not to see another minute? It made me pretty sour.

SA: You're from the generation of players who at the pro level mainly option of the indoor game before MLS was launched in 1996. What do you remember from transitioning from the indoor to the outdoor game? Was it difficult?

DANTE WASHINGTON: I remember I got drafted by the Baltimore Blast after graduating from Radford in December. I can remember talking to the coach and general manager and they said, "Well, you might play." I'm like, "Might play?" I expected to play and it wasn't even a lot of money.

And this was me coming off of the Olympics just the summer before.

So I took some time away from the game and was working for the 1994 World Cup organizing committee. I left that job to play for the Washington Warthogs, an indoor team. It wasn't a year-round thing so I still had to work.

I think I tried to do some substitute teaching, some temp work just to make ends meet. There were guys who would play outdoor and then switch to indoor and then play outdoor again. But that wasn't possible for us. Once I was done with that, it was 1996 and MLS was starting. I was working for NBC in their Olympics unit because I needed a job.

After a hiatus from soccer, Dante Washington joined MLS in the middle of its inaugural 1996 season, playing three games for the Columbus Crew before joining the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) for the remainder of the season and the next three (1997-99). He played for the Crew in 2000-02 and 2004 and retired after the 2005 season with Real Salt Lake and a stint with the indoor Baltimore Blast. Washington scored 57 MLS goals, 31 assists, and won Open Cups with Dallas (1997) and Columbus (2002). He also spent two seasons with the Virginia Beach Mariners and was A-League leading scorer before returning to the Crew for the 2004 season.

SA: You were sure your career was over?

DANTE WASHINGTON: I remember going to an event that MLS had in New York City. I went to it and saw Eric Wynalda and Eric was like, "What are you doing? Why aren't you playing?" And I'm like, "I don't know." No one ever called me! I never got drafted. To this day, I never knew why I didn't. I think someone told me recently that people thought that I quit soccer. I never said that to anyone but after the draft I figured my career was over and I got a job.

SA: Did that conversation make you want to revive your career?

DANTE WASHINGTON: Yeah, and something else happened. I was out with some coworkers on a Saturday and we went into a local bar to watch the first MLS match. By this time, they knew my background and that I had played in the Olympics. It was ironic because an Olympian was working for the Olympic committee for NBC. Maybe me watching that game and seeing Eric score as I'm sitting at a high-top table in a bar in New York was subliminally doing something to my psyche.

I've actually never put those two things together — that the person who told me I needed to play also scored the first goal of MLS history. I started to get the itch again.

SA: But you still weren't playing while the 1996 inaugural season was well underway ...

DANTE WASHINGTON: At the host hotel for the 1996 Olympics, I was the point person for all communications. This was two weeks before the events had started.

I was talking to one of the U.S. youth coaches and he told me that I should start playing again. And I did want to, but I didn't think anyone would want me. And he's like, 'Well, let me call John Ellinger.' So if I remember correctly, he called John and then he called [Columbus Crew coach] Tom Fitzgerald who I played for at the U.S. national B team. Back when we had a B team. He asked Fitzgerald if he wanted me, and Fitzgerald said, "Yes!"

That's how I got back into playing. I had not played a high-level [above college] competitive match outdoors by the time I came back in 1996 since the first game of the 1992 Olympics.

Two weeks before the Olympics start, I go into the office and I'm terrified to tell my boss, Susan Stogel, that I was leaving. This woman is like, a legend for NBC. Very intense, just unbelievable. She handed my butt to me at one point working there — I'll never forget it. She patted me on the back and said, "You'll learn." And I was like, "Yep, you're exactly right."

So I told her, I was leaving and not one person was upset. They were like, "You know what, we'll figure it out."

One day I walked into our [Dallas Burn] locker room — a double-wide trailer — and my whole locker was filled with congratulations and decorative stuff. They had sent me stuff and someone had put it in my locker. So that made it a lot easier.

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