Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach, was standing on a low stage
giving an interview when he saw his striker Eric Wynalda walk by
below him. To pass through the various groups of reporters,
Wynalda had to take a circuitous route, turning right and left
and back and forth again and again. He was like an expensive
jewel that had fallen down the bathroom sink and was at the
mercy of the plumbing. At 29, in what should have been his prime
year as a striker, he'd had his World Cup career flushed away.
On his way out of the press area he slammed the door behind
him--which, it might make Wynalda happy to know, made Sampson
jump a little.
This untidy scene occurred late on Sunday night in the bowels of
the Stade de Gerland in Lyons, France, after U.S. hopes of
reaching the World Cup's second round had ended with a 2-1 loss
to Iran. For the Americans, the tournament was over even though
they still had one game left, against Yugoslavia on Thursday.
Wynalda, the alltime leading U.S. scorer, had gone two matches
without firing a shot. He had been benched in the 63rd minute of
the opening game, a 2-0 loss to Germany, and hadn't played
against Iran. His removal was one of a series of coaching
decisions that will almost surely cost Sampson his job.
In all fairness, U.S. impotence around the goal predates
Sampson's tenure. The Americans struck Iran's woodwork three
times before Brian McBride finally plowed a header over the line
with six minutes to go, a late success that brought greater
perspective to the U.S. failures. It was just the fifth U.S.
goal in nine World Cup matches covering the last four decades.
Meanwhile, Holland and Argentina each scored five goals in an
hour and a half last weekend.
Iran uncovered the inadequacies of U.S. soccer plainly and
deliberately. The Iranian players, raised during the 1979
revolution, the ensuing bloody purges by the Ayatullah Khomeini
and the eight-year war with Iraq, grew up playing in the streets
or on dirt fields with cheap plastic soccer balls. They had no
coaching to speak of until their mid-teens and no realistic hope
of their national team's advancing to the world's greatest
stage, yet they persisted. In defeating the Americans for Iran's
first World Cup victory, they exhibited an ear for the game,
whereas the U.S. players seemed to be reading from sheet music.
Despite the enormous political pressure weighing on them to
defeat "the Great Satan," the Iranian strikers composed
themselves, held the ball, waited for the American defenders to
converge and then burst forward into newly vacated spaces.
Had the U.S. exhibited such patience, it would have won in a
rout, because it was on the attack twice as often as its
opponents, all but five of whom play in the semipro Iranian
league. But rather than calm down around the target, the
Americans fluttered like moths around a lightbulb. Sampson will
have to take responsibility for this.
Lacking a go-to guy, the U.S. might have relied on organization,
experience and the unspoken understanding among its players,
which should have existed on a team appearing in its third
consecutive World Cup. But its supply of those qualities began
to shrink two months ago when Sampson, without public warning,
released John Harkes, the 31-year-old midfielder who was then
the U.S. captain. Sampson wanted to hand on-field control of the
team over to 24-year-old Claudio Reyna, who was finishing his
first year as a starting playmaker in Germany's Bundesliga.
Sampson believed that Harkes's ego was out of control, that he
was no longer coachable and that he would not accept a
secondary, defensive role behind Reyna. In hindsight, Sampson
was naive. The U.S. needed as many strong personalities as
"Steve lost sight of how hard it is just to qualify for the
World Cup, of what we went through just to make it," Harkes said
from his home near Washington, D.C., after watching the U.S.
loss on TV. "He didn't realize how really together we were as a
team, how well we knew each other. I watch the team play now,
and that understanding is not there."
After cutting Harkes, Sampson installed a 3-6-1 formation, with
six midfielders and a lone striker, in the hope of stuffing the
more talented Germans and Yugoslavs before they threatened the
U.S. penalty box. This change from the Americans' traditional
4-4-2 formation led to the benching of longtime defenders Alexi
Lalas, 28, and Marcelo Balboa, 30. Fellow veteran Tab Ramos, 31,
recently recovered from knee surgery, didn't start against
Germany because Sampson felt he wouldn't be a good fit in
midfield with Reyna.
It would have been one thing if Reyna had fought for control of
the squad. Then he would have been ready to lead his teammates
against the Germans. Instead, Sampson handed the keys of the
family van to a group of players--Mike Burns, Chad Deering,
Brian Maisonneuve and Reyna--who had no World Cup experience. In
the opening minute against Germany, Reyna was knocked flat on
his face by thuggish midfielder Jens Jeremies. Altogether the
Americans looked as if they had inadvertently stumbled into a
rough part of town.
For the match against Iran, Sampson made five lineup changes. He
scrapped the 3-6-1 to start McBride and Roy Wegerle as strikers,
and he let Reyna walk the ball upfield like a point guard. The
strategy worked fine until the Americans came within 30 yards of
the goal. From there they lacked the imagination to work the
ball inside. They couldn't predict each other's movements,
because they didn't know each other well enough. They were like
a basketball team that settled for the perimeter jump shot.
Before the game against Iran, Sampson said that he had "a better
than 50-50 chance of continuing" as U.S. coach after the World
Cup. His estimate was based on his confidence that he would
guide the team to the second round, as his predecessor, the
Yugoslavian-born Bora Milutinovic, had done in 1994, on American
soil. Noting the U.S. soccer federation's recently announced
goal of winning the World Cup by 2010, the 41-year-old Sampson
made his pitch to help plot the future of the sport in America.
"No team has ever won a World Cup with a foreign coach," he said
Late Sunday night, as Sampson defended his strategies after his
team had been eliminated, the U.S. federation president, Alan
Rothenberg, stood just a few feet away, promising that he would
make a decision on the coach's future within a few weeks. The
U.S. should be coached by an American, to develop an American
style of play. But would Sampson ever be able to mend his
relationships with the team's strongest personalities, the
players who spent much of this tournament beside him on the bench?
Goalkeeper Kasey Keller had hoped to parlay his performance in
this World Cup into a job with one of the top clubs in Europe,
but in his short time under pressure, he didn't have the chance
to make great saves. The players most likely to receive offers
from European clubs are midfielder Frankie Hejduk and defender
Eddie Pope, both of whom now play in Major League Soccer. For
Balboa, Harkes, Lalas and Wynalda--the players who helped put
the U.S. in position to do well in France--this Cup may have
been their goodbye from the world stage, a farewell to be
regretted, for they were part of the audience.