A difficult summer, but all the better for it thank you very much.
Manifest destiny has done a number on the American soccer fan. Even before outsourcing rocked our socks and a debt-binge left our stomachs churning, US fans looked at our national team with puzzlement: we didn't suck, but why hadn't we ascended like a line on a graphing calculator? In the space of a few decades, the program has reached new heights. However, along the way, US fans have seen a few horrid hiccups. And perhaps there has been no greater disappointment than the US at France 98.
For the United States Men's national team, France 98 was an unusual position. From getting embarrassed at Italia 90, a great generation of players, quirky foreign coach, and home field advantage led to a respectable Round of 16 loss to eventual champion Brazil. Also, the nascent MLS had recently brought professional soccer back to the States. A handful of US players, like Alexi Lalas, John Harkes, and Eric Wynalda, had tasted modest success in Europe. In sum, there were grounds for optimism and, for the first time in a long time, a modicum of expectations. Nobody expected the US to lift the Cup or even make the semi-finals, but escaping the group stages seemed possible.
Group F pitted the US against perennial power Germany, historical power Yugoslavia, and Iran. US fans, like all fans of good but not great soccer countries, mentally constructed a tried and true formula: try to tie one of the European teams and then beat the Asian/African/North American representative. The US easily fulfilled the first part of the equation, conceding a goal in the 8th minute and eventually losing 2-0 to Germany to open the group stages. Despite the loss, the embers of optimism burned. The US did play a decent second half against the Germans, coming close to a tying goal off a Frankie Hejduk header.
The second game against Iran was crucial. From a sporting perspective, the US could not realistically expect to advance with two losses. A draw would be decent, but Iran was on paper the easier opponent than Yugoslavia. Politically, the game was somewhat charged. President Clinton took the opportunity address the US via television, highlighting recent steps taken to end the US and Iran's estrangement. Despite the delicate words of politicians, the game was full of ferocious tackles. There were only three yellow cards, but both teams slid into 50-50 balls with blood lust in their hearts & boots raised. A dash of politics mixed with sporting desperation: both teams needed to win the game and knew it and played for it. It was a glorious spectacle.
The US coach, Steve Sampson, abandoned the disastrous defensive 3-6-1 used against Germany in favor of a full court press 3-5-2. The US team dominated the opening half hour behind the fresh legs of Tab Ramos and Brian McBride. However, the game was introduction for the American audience to the sport's inherent cruelty. The US hit the post 3 times in the first 30 minutes, but then a neat interchange at the 40 minute mark allowed Iran to score off a header. The US pressed even harder for an equalizer in the second half, but Iran counterattacked with venom and eventually got an insurance goal after a missed tackle by Frankie Hejduk. By the time McBride finally found the net, it was 2-1 and too late. The US dream had been dashed.
The US played a decent game against Yugoslavia, losing 1-0 after conceding another early goal. Chances came aplenty, but the opposing net never rippled. At the end of three games, the US failed to even earn a single tie, scored one goal, and exited at the group stage. Everybody wanted to blame the coach. Steve Sampson, for his unusual 3-6-1 in the game against Germany, but was that a game the US could really have expected to win or draw? The other two games saw respectable performances in which the US created scoring chances but failed to finish them. The early goals were a black eye, but surely the team deserved credit for never capitulating. The US team scored their only goal in their darkest hour, down two goals to nil against Iran and their chances of advancing in tatters. Regardless of moral victories, the US finished dead last
The typical benched player grumblings only leaned credence to the "blame the coach" fire. Tab Ramos, who started the second game but was benched the third, publicly ridiculing Sampson's lineup choice. At first, Samson played it cool and in press conferences talked up his team's spirit and creation of chances, and blamed the losses on that nebulous skill set of finishing. However, veteran Alexi Lalas and Jeff Agoos joined the media circus and vowed to never play for the US under Sampson. Sampson responded in the worst fashion imaginable - he publicly complained about "athletes" thinking they had the "freedom to express themselves." In a county where our Constitution's First Amendment grants freedom of expression, this was an oral suicide note. His resigned shortly after.
Still, the criticism was probably too harsh, at least in a soccer sense. Sampson made one tactical gaffe in an opening game, immediately learned from it, and fielded two starting lineups that went toe-to-toe with Iran & Yugoslavia. The US also manufactured chances, with Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride impressing on the offensive end. Sampson, an authoritarian, poorly handled the benched veteran egos of the aging Lalas and Ramos, but his emphasis on youth and positive soccer paid dividends four years later in Japan/Korea. Upon reflection, 98 was a stopgap year in terms of talent - the kids were still kids and the veterans were old. But, of course, it's easier to blame the coach.
And the coach did make a curious omission before the World Cup: John Harkes. At the time, Harkes was the first American to play in the English Premier League and considered a lock for the team. However, US fans that had penned his name into the lineup were shocked to see him not make the plane to France, especially after Sampson had called him "Captain for life." This unusual and unexplained decision reinforced the media storyline of "Sampson the cold & quirky coach who lost the locker room." But, decades later, the truth came to light.
Over a decade later, on a radio call-in show, former US striker Eric Wynalda admitted that John Harkes had had an affair with his wife. The situation eerily mirrored England's "Bridge-gate" dilemma, when captain John Terry was caught sleeping with Wayne Bridge's fiancee mere months before South Africa. For England, Fabio Capello merely stripped Terry of the captaincy and tried to bring both players along, with Bridge turning down the offer. Sampson, however, simply dropped two-timw World Cup veteran Harkes and cited "leadership issues." Harkes refused to comment on the revelation, obliquely stating he didn't want to reflect on 1998 "the most difficult year of his life."
From a fans' perspective, it's sad that the scars of 98 linger. Our modest expectations were dashed by a poisonous elixir of a morally questionable captain, an over-authoritarian coach, petulant veterans, untested youngsters, and simple bad luck. If World Cup 94 taught the US about the wondrous possibilities of soccer, then France 98 exposed us to the game's fickle cruelty. Looking back, US fans can at least smile at the dashing Claudio Reyna and powerful (and always head-bandaged) Brian McBride, young & vibrant and striking shots that would hit posts today but turn into goals in 2002. The youngsters got bled, the veterans never led, and the coach fled, but we're better off for the scar tissue.