Our series on the US at the World Cup continues with a look at the road to the 1998 World Cup hosted by France. You can read more about US World Cup appearances in 1930 (part 1), 1930 (part 2), 1934, 1950, the 1950-1990 drought, 1990, 1994, 1998 (part 2), 2002 (part 1), 2002 (part 2) and 2006.
The lead up to the 1998 World Cup
The 1994 World Cup had been a resounding success for US soccer with match attendance reaching a level that has yet to be bettered and extensive television coverage widening awareness of both soccer and the World Cup in American households. The US team had even played surprisingly well and had managed to advance to the Round of 16 where it lost to Brazil.
The momentum created by the World Cup was furthered when Major League Soccer debuted in 1996. Actually, delays in finding the necessary investors to get the league underway led many to wonder if the momentum gained as a result of the 1994 World Cup was being squandered. When it became clear that the league would not be able to start in 1995, Tab Ramos, the first to sign a MLS contract, expressed the fears of many when he said, “It seems like soccer has disappeared again.”
While it had taken eight years for the first kick of the league to take place, and the league was smaller than many had hoped with more than a few major cities not being represented by teams, MLS nevertheless provided a home for American soccer players who were either unable or unwilling to play outside the US.
Importantly, MLS was not created as a replica of the NASL. The single-entity structure that defined the league meant that owners bought into the success of the league as a whole rather than the success of an individual club. This, combined with a salary cap, meant that the kind of unsustainable buying sprees which had threatened the long-term survival of NASL clubs and ultimately the league itself would not be repeated. If players were not making wages similar to those in other professional US sport leagues they at least were getting regular playing time. This, combined with an active schedule of friendlies and tournaments for the national team could only benefit the development of US players. Whether the national team would quickly reap the rewards of such benefits remained to be seen.
Who’s the coach?
The coach of the US 1994 World Cup, Bora Milutinovic, was gone in 1995—the federation said he had resigned, he said he had been fired. Whatever the case, the federation tried to court several big-name managers including former Portugal manager Carlos Queiroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira, coach of the 1994 World Cup winning Brazil team. While the search for a replacement went on, Steve Sampson, an assistant coach on the squad, became temporary head coach.
After leading the US team to a 4-0 victory over Mexico in the 1995 US Cup of the Americas and taking the team to the finals of the Copa America where the US lost 1-0 to Brazil—this after defeating Chile, Argentina and Mexico along the way—Sampson was made head coach, becoming the first native-born, full-time coach in the history of the US national team.
A poor showing in the 1996 US Cup was followed by a players walkout over a dispute about bonus money—only two weeks before the first round of CONCACAF qualifiers was to begin Sampson was forced to field a squad of replacement players for a friendly against Peru. While the dispute would continue for months, the players returned in time for the first qualifier against Guatemala.
The qualification campaign for the 1998 World Cup: the semi-finals
The US met Guatemala at RFK Stadium on November 3, 1996, in a bruising contest. After Eric Wynalda scored the first goal of the match in the 55th minute, Guatemala increased the tempo of their attack. Only a goal from Brian McBride sealed the victory and that didn’t happen until the 89th minute.
A week later, the US met Trinidad & Tobago at Richmond Stadium in Virginia. Desperate for a win with only one point gained from their previous three qualifiers, the visitors had to attack and the game featured a great deal of open play. Still, almost an hour of play elapsed before the US scored its first goal off of a Thomas Dooley header. With Trinidad & Tobago pressing forward for an equalizer, the US got a second goal in the 85th minute from a shot by Wynalda and the match ended 2-0.
On November 24, the US traveled to Port-of-Spain to face Trinidad & Tobago in the return leg, the first US visit since Paul Cagliuri’s goal there in 1989 had secured qualification for the 1990 World Cup. With Trinidad & Tobago already eliminated following their loss in Richmond, it was a much different atmosphere than seven years before when both teams needed a win to qualify. The US scored the only goal of the match when, as the home team continued to argue the foul, John Harkes took a quick free kick. Harkes’s kick found Joe-Max Moore who then chipped Michael Maurice, the keeper who Cagliuri had beaten seven years earlier. An ACL tear suffered by Ramos in the second half of the match would put him on the sidelines for nearly nine months.
A victory over Costa Rica on December 1 would mean that the US would clinch advancement to the final round. As the hostile crowd rained coins, batteries, shoes and bags of urine on the US players from the stands—”I’ve never been spat upon so much in my life,” said US keeper Brad Friedel—the Costa Rica team showered the US goal with shots.
Midway through the first half Paulo Wanchope poked home Costa Rica’s first goal off of a low cross from Hernan Medford. In the closing minutes of the match the score was 2-0 for Costa Rica before Cobi Jones scored a consolation goal in the 89th minute. Both Costa Rica and the US now had nine points. When Guatemala beat Trinidad & Tobago a week later to secure seven points the return leg took on a grave significance: if the US lost to Costa Rica at Stanford Stadium on December 14, and then lost to Guatemala, the US would drop to third in the group and not advance.
While the US did not dominate play in the return leg they did secure a victory and advancement to the next round of qualifiers. McBride pounced on a loose ball in the penalty area to make it 1-0 in the 16th minute. In the 60th minute Roy Lassiter volleyed home the rebound from a shot by Alexi Lalas to make it 2-0. Costa Rica got a goal in the closing minutes of play but they were unable to do more.
The match against Guatemala at Estadio Cuscatlan on December 21 was the first time the US had played a qualifier having already made it to the next round. For Guatemala, a victory would mean that they still had a slim chance of qualifying. But because of a fatal stampede at a qualifier against Costa Rica in October at Estadio Mateo Flores that left at least 83 dead and more than 140 injured, Guatemala’s remaining home games were played at neutral sites, in this case in El Salvador. The recently naturalized Preki Radosalvjevic scored the first US goal in the seventh minute after he stripped a defender of the ball for a one-on-one with the keeper. Guatemala responded with two goals before Frankie Hejduk broke free in the penalty area off of a through ball by Preki to tie the match. The game ended in a 2-2 draw, not that it mattered for Guatemala: Costa Rica had beaten Trinidad & Tobago the same day to advance to the next round.
The qualification campaign for the 1998 World Cup: the finals
In the final group of six teams the US would face Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Jamaica and Mexico. The first match against Jamaica at National Stadium in Kingston on March 2, 1997, ended as a scoreless draw. Coached by the Brazilian Rene Simoes and with a squad filled out by players of Jamaican descent who were playing in England, Jamaica was a markedly improved team and by all accounts the better team on that day. Keeper Kasey Keller was key in helping to secure an away point for the US.
The US next faced Canada on March 16 at Stanford Stadium. Canada had historically been one of the reasons for the US World Cup appearance drought between 1950 and 1990. But, in the seventeen years since the two teams had met for a qualifier, Canadian soccer had declined. Though the final scoreline might suggest otherwise, the US didn’t actually dominate the match. After a Wynalda goal in the 8th minute was followed by Eddie Pope’s goal in the 14th minute, they didn’t need too. Earnie Stewart’s goal in the 89th minute completed the 3-0 victory.
On March 23 the US again faced Costa Rica. The fans at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa were on good behavior this time with the batteries and bags of urine of the previous meeting being replaced by streamers and confetti. Medford scored first for Costa Rica in the 10th minute off of a lovely through ball from Ronald Gomez. Wynalda equalized in the 24th minute with a long, hooking shot from outside of the penalty area. Gomez hit a Costa Rica free kick to Mauricio Solis who blasted a shot past Keller in the 32nd minute. In the 68th minute Lassiter notched another goal to his tally against Costa Rica when he intercepted a square pass to dribble around a defender and deliver a sharp shot into the back of the net. Costa Rica scored the game winner in the off of Lopez’ 76th minute goal. With three matches down and only four points gained, things were suddenly looking grim for the US. And Mexico was next.
The story of the US at the 1998 World Cup will conclude tomorrow.