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Digging up a painful U.S. memory

During the last week of the 2006 World Cup, at a bar in Berlin, U.S. Hall of Fame striker Eric Wynalda and I had a couple of beers one night. The occasion was an informal media get-together organized by ESPN. Wynalda was at the height of his powers in those days as an ESPN analyst: His unvarnished opinions during the World Cup would end up earning him a new contract with the network.

That night, Wynalda and I talked about all sorts of things, including his playing days, our families and the ongoing World Cup. And then, out of nowhere, he said: "You know the stuff about [John] Harkes sleeping with my wife? It's true."

My first reaction was to nearly drop my beer on the floor. My second was to get rather uncomfortable. It struck me as a private matter, and I didn't ask Wynalda a single question about it. (I was just glad that Harkes, who was also working for ESPN at that World Cup, wasn't sitting next to us.)

Had I suspected that the alleged affair was the reason coach Steve Sampson famously dropped Harkes, the captain, from the 1998 U.S. World Cup team, I probably would have pursued the story further. But that wasn't in my mind: For all I knew, the incident had taken place in the 2000s -- Wynalda had split from his wife, Amy, in '03, not in '98. Nor did Wynalda say anything that night about when it had gone down or whether it had affected the U.S. team.

And, keep in mind, this was hardly an on-the-record interview. It was one thing to toss that out over beers, and quite another to put it out there for public consumption.

Of course, that's exactly what Wynalda finally did on Monday night. During a broadcast of his current show, Fox Football Fone-In, on Fox Soccer Channel, the topic of discussion was the news in England that captain John Terry had engaged in an affair with the former girlfriend of teammate Wayne Bridge. Wynalda volunteered that a similar event had happened on the '98 U.S. team, when he said that Harkes had had "an inappropriate relationship" with Wynalda's wife and been dropped from the team.

On Tuesday, after 12 years of silence, came the confirmation from Sampson, the much-criticized coach of the '98 U.S. team, that he had in fact cut Harkes because of the alleged affair. (Harkes has denied that the affair took place.)

Part of me had to laugh. Just last week, a buddy of mine was saying that American soccer needed a good old-fashioned sex scandal to draw more attention to the sport. Now we had one, and it was so "old-fashioned" that it took place in a previous century.

Suddenly, U.S. fans were hurtling back in time, to a dark period in the history of U.S. soccer, and they had new questions: Would this change the playing-career legacy of Harkes, the one-time "Captain for Life" who has now replaced Wynalda as the lead U.S. analyst on ESPN's soccer broadcasts? Why would Wynalda choose to put this out there in 2010? And was Sampson now at least partially vindicated for the U.S. team's horrible 0-3 performance?

(Aside: I've stopped referring to the U.S.' World Cup '98 fiasco as a "last-place" finish. It was a disaster, no doubt, and should be regarded that way. But you don't see other countries poring through goal-differential totals to see who finished 30th and who finished 32nd at a World Cup, just as nobody refers to the U.S.' '02 World Cup quarterfinal run as an "eighth-place finish." World Cup '02 was a surprising quarterfinal run; World Cup '98 was a brutal first-round exit. Sorry, pet peeve. Rant over.)

I'm not going to speculate here on Wynalda's motives for the timing of this revelation -- you could argue the Terry story gives it a relevant news hook -- and I think it would be an overreaction if Harkes loses any of his standing at ESPN because of this. If the affair did happen, it was obviously extremely poor behavior on many levels. Yet the most important thing for me is this: Should Harkes, the team captain and likely starter in '98, have been dropped from the U.S. team? Did Sampson make the right decision?

For me, the answer is a clear and resounding no. I know that a lot of people are looking at Sampson's role in the '98 disaster now and arguing that he deserves less of the blame. It is certainly commendable that Sampson -- a decent man, in my experience -- waited so many years to provide his full rationale, and only then because Wynalda spilled the beans first. Had Sampson brought this up on his own in, say, August '98, a lot of observers would have looked at that period differently.

But I still view Sampson's decision to drop Harkes as a bad one. Sampson himself said this week that Harkes would have been on the World Cup team had the alleged affair not happened -- an admission that in soccer terms, Harkes would have helped the team in the pursuit that matters most at a World Cup: winning. And that's where the debate should end. News flash: Not every professional athlete likes all of his teammates. But that doesn't keep them from playing well on the field together.

Consider the Terry situation for a moment. For all the attention it's receiving in England, and for all the bonds that Terry has broken (marriage vows, man code, etc.), nobody is talking about whether he'll be dropped from the team, but rather if he'll stay on as the captain (England stripped Terry's captaincy on Friday, but he remains on the team). Terry is just too important to England's chances to leave him off the World Cup squad completely, and coach Fabio Capello knows that.

Sampson could have followed Capello's example, could have simply taken away Harkes' armband, managed the situation inside the U.S. locker room and avoided using the nuclear option on Harkes and hurting his team's chances at France '98. Even Wynalda says he told Sampson in '98 that he should have kept Harkes on the team -- and yet Sampson overreacted anyway, showing a Puritanical streak that came back to bite him in losses to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia.

If you recall, Sampson made other big decisions with that team that didn't turn out well: revamping his starting lineup right before the World Cup, choosing to base the team at a remote chateau in France and adopting the notorious 3-6-1 formation. He hardly deserves all the blame for the U.S. fiasco in '98 -- the players certainly earned their share, too. But anyone who thinks Sampson is vindicated by this week's news is missing the point.

After five years at SI.com, soccer producer, writer and Podcaster extraordinaire Jonah Freedman is leaving us on Feb. 15 for a cool new gig. I wanted to take the time here to thank Jonah for doing so much to improve SI.com's soccer page in recent years. You'll be missed. ... In unrelated news, I'm happy to say that my role covering soccer for SI.com and Sports Illustrated is being expanded. As much as I have loved covering college basketball over the years, I'm really excited about getting the chance to write about soccer full-time and give the sport the attention it deserves. If you can't already tell, soccer is my passion. Big thanks to SI for deciding to make the commitment. ... I'm going to start doing some occasional soccer Mailbags, so make sure to put your thoughtful questions in the "E-mail Grant" link at the top of this column. ... Television note: The huge rivalry game between Liverpool and Everton (with Landon Donovan and Tim Howard) will be televised live in HD on ESPN2 on Saturday at 7:30 a.m. ET.

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