Our series on the US at the World Cup continues with the second part of our look at the 1998 World Cup. You can read more about US World Cup appearances in 1930 (part 1), 1930 (part 2), 1934, 1950, the 1950-1990 drought, 1990, 1994, the lead up to 1998, 2002 (part 1), 2002 (part 2) and 2006.
The US versus Mexico, round one: things are looking up
Just as had been the case in Costa Rica, when the US hosted Mexico at Foxboro Stadium on April 20, they twice had to come from behind to equalize. But this time they did not give up a late goal and actually looked to be more likely to score. Mexico scored first just 39 seconds after the opening whistle when Carlos Hermosillo lept in front of a Kasey Keller clearance. The ball deflected off of Hermosillo’s forehead, bounced off the ground and over Keller’s head into goal. Eddie Pope equalized for the US in the 35th minute only for Luis Hernandez to put Mexico ahead in the 54th minute. The US equalizer was the result of an own goal by Nicolas Ramirez in the 74th minute, perhaps a fitting end given the freakish nature of the first Mexico goal. While the US pressed for a late victory after US coach Steve Sampson replaced two defenders with attackers, they were unable to score. All things considered, taking a point from Mexico was not a bad result.
The draw with Mexico was followed by a 1-1 draw against El Salvador at Estadio Cuscatlan on June 29. Roy Lassiter scored for the US in the 52nd minute when he volleyed home a cross from John Harkes. El Salvador equalized in the 60th minute with an awkward goal from Raul Diaz Arce, who managed to mis-hit a left-footed shot off of his right leg into the net. The US nearly scored in the closing seconds when another Lassiter volley glanced off of the crossbar but had to settle for a point on the road. With half of the final round of qualifiers over, the US was in third place with six points, behind Mexico with eleven points and Costa Rica with seven. Canada, El Salvador and Jamaica each had five points.
On October 3 the US hosted Jamaica at RFK Stadium in a match that many probably would have thought would be a sure win. But the Jamaica team was on fire and, in the end, the US was fortunate to once again secure a draw. Jamaica had the US on its heels for much of the first half. Eric Wynalda converted a controversial penalty kick in the 59th minute for a handball that replays showed had clearly occurred outside of the box. Moments later, Paul Hall defected a square pass on the US backline to the feet of Deon Burton who promptly scored for Jamaica. Suddenly, the next match, against Mexico at Estadio Azteca, took on an unexpected importance for the US.
The US versus Mexico, round two: things are looking better still
When the teams met on November 2 at Estadio Azteca, most expected Mexico to walk away with three points. After all, the previous seventeen visits the US had made to Mexico had resulted in seventeen defeats. To make matters worse, Ramos had suffered another injury, Earnie Stewart and Keller were also hurt, and Claudio Reyna was suspended for the match. But the dynamic play of the US in the opening minutes of the game helped to take the nearly 115,000 fans out of the picture. Even when US defender Jeff Agoos was sent off in the 32nd minute for a retaliatory elbow, the US continued to attack. The US turned to defensive play in the second half and by now the Mexico fans were booing their own team. Against all expectation the match ended in a scoreless draw, and this with a US side made up entirely of players from the MLS. While Mexico thus clinched a trip to the World Cup, the hopes of the US remained alive. After the match the coach of the Mexico team, Bora Milutinovic, the man who had led the US team in the 1994 World Cup, was fired.
When the US traveled to Swangard Stadium in British Columbia to face an already eliminated Canada on November 9, they knew that a victory combined with a ties or wins by Mexico and Jamaica over Costa Rica and El Salvador would mean that the US would qualify for the World Cup. Reyna scored first for the US in the fifth minute when, after receiving a cross from Roy Wegerle, he was able to spin away from his defender and send home a shot from just inside the box. Wegerle scored two more goals in the 80th and the 90th minute and the match ended as a 3-0 victory for the US.
The match against El Salvador on November 16 at Foxboro Stadium was meaningless for the US but if the visitors could win and Jamaica were to lose at home to Mexico, El Salvador would be tied for third and qualify on goal difference. Sampson sat every player carrying a yellow card who would be suspended for the first game in France if they received a yellow in this game. Even without many of its star players, the US easily won 4-2.
The US at the 1998 World Cup
If the answer to the question of whether Sampson would remain as head coach remained uncertain following the successful qualification campaign, it seemed to be settled after the US defeated Brazil in the semifinals of the 1998 Gold Cup, even if though theUS lost to Mexico in the finals. Still, Sampson was on a year-to-year contract and every match seemed fraught with the possibility of repercussions with the federation.
While the team had earlier rallied behind Sampson, decisive defeats to the Netherlands and Belgium shortly after the Gold Cup appeared to shake the team’s confidence and Sampson began to tinker with the lineup. World Cup veterans like Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas and Wynalda were absent from the final warm-up games as Sampson tried less experienced players. Some of the more experienced professionals on the team began to think that the coach was micro-managing, though others, perhaps thinking of the typical style of college coaches, saw no problem with Sampson’s methods.
Most shocking was the omission of Harkes, whom Sampson had earlier referred to as “captain for life” of the US team, from the final World Cup roster for what was described as a series of minor disciplinary offenses and unexplained “leadership issues.” Sampson clearly felt his tactics vindicated when his 3-6-1 formation against Austria resulted in a 3-0 victory for the US. Such self-belief would be necessary if the US was to advance from a World Cup group that included Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia. Whether the team shared the convictions of the its coach was far from certain.
USA 0- 2 Germany
When the US faced Germany on June 15 at the Parc des Princes in Paris, its lineup featured eight players who were making their World Cup debut. Sampson believed that Reyna would be the key to the team’s attack but Germany marked him out of the game and dominated possession in the first half. Eight minutes into the game some sloppy defense for the US on a corner kick led to the first goal for Germany when Jurgen Klinsmann out leaped two defenders at the far post to head Olaf Thon’s service in front of goal. Andreas Moller then headed the ball to beat Mike Burns, who was guarding the near post.
The US came out on the attack in the second half and for the first fifteen minutes seemed likely to score an equalizer. Frankie Hejduk, who had come on to replace Burns, nearly scored in the 52nd minute with a diving header that nearly beat Germany keeper Andreas Kopke. But the US attack soon petered out. Klinsmann beat US defender Thomas Dooley for a header in the penalty area. He then controlled the ball and promptly made it two for Germany. David Wangerin suggests in Soccer in a Football World that, while the scoreline was different from the 5-1 loss that the US suffered against Czechoslovakia in their opening game in 1990, “in some ways it reeked of the same naivety, the belief that slavish devotion to the whiteboard could triumph over international nous . . . Unfortunately, the veterans who were called up had largely let the side down.” (You can watch a YouTube clip of the match below.)
USA 1 – 2 Iran
Some sporting events take on an importance much larger than the game itself. The US match against Iran was one such event. While commentators speculated about the political importance of the match—and soccer boosters worried about the consequences of a US defeat for the prospects of the game in America—Sampson adjusted his line up. Burns, Stewart and Wynalda started on the bench and Sampson deployed a 3-5-2 formation. The US were favorites and the new formation produced several chances. But the US simply couldn’t finish. When Hamid Estili placed a looping header over Keller in the 40th minute, the US reaction was one of shock.
In the second half, Iran pulled back into defense. The US struck the post four times but was unable to find the net. Throwing everyone forward, their frustration turned to despair when, in the 84th minute Mehdi Mahdavikia started a run to receive the ball ten yards in the American half with no one to beat but Keller. A diving header from Brian McBride cut the score in half in the 87th minute. But the frantic scramble for another goal in the time remaining was fruitless and the US was out of contention to make it into the next round.
To the surprise of some, the mood between US and Iran fans both before and after the match was festive rather than hostile. (You can watch a YouTube clip of the match below.)
USA 0-1 Yugoslavia
Given US involvement in the conflict in the Balkans at the time, the final match was another one weighted with political overtones. Meanwhile, conflict within the US team was beginning to spill out into the press. Lalas, who would not play a single minute in the tournament, told reporters, “everybody’s ready to explode.” Sampson once again changed the line up and the US produced what many considered their best performance of the tournament. But Slobodan Komljenovic’s goal from Brad Friedel’s parry of a Sinisa Mihajlovic‘s free kick in the 4th minute proved to be enough. The US had failed to advance past the group stages. It had lost all three of its matches and had scored only one goal. Of the 32 teams in the tournament, the US had finished dead last. (You can watch a YouTube clip of the match below.)
Yugoslavia would be defeated 2-1 in the Round of 16 by the Netherlands. Germany would beat Mexico 2-1 and lose 3-0 to Croatia. Croatia would be defeated 2-1 by France. France would beat Brazil 3-0 to win the 1998 World Cup.
After the 1998 World Cup
With the US out of the World Cup, the acrimony felt by many players toward Steve Sampson began to be expressed without restraint. Wangerin writes,
‘They stunk. And they hated their coach,’ was the pithy summary of one Associated Press writer, and as the players packed their bags their hatred seemed to intensify. ‘We were naive to think an inexperienced coach would see the value of experienced players,’ concluded Wynalda, who only once appeared in the starting line-up. ‘We should never let this happen again.’ Ramos insisted he had played his last match for the team with Sampson in charge. His assessment of the manager’s competence—’as he became more of a coach, we became less of a team’—drew the threat of a fine from the USSF.
Ramos, who saw a total of 78 minutes of playing time, said further, “From the beginning, this whole World Cup has been a mess . . . I blame the coaches for the losses.”
Sampson remained unapologetic about leaving Harkes at home or sitting veteran players and suggested that few US players were ready to play at the level of the World Cup. Given that all but for of the national team’s outfield players were based in MLS, some wondered what this said about the quality of the three-year old league. Sampson resigned four days after the loss to Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, it was time for the US to regroup after its dismal performance. First off the team needed a new coach and they found him in Bruce Arena. In his first nine months in charge Arena lead the US to two victories over Germany, one over Argentina, and a third place finish in the Confederations Cup. Qualifications for the next World Cup began in July, 2000. It would be a long road to get to the finals again.
Twelve years after the 1998 World Cup, in the wake of the John Terry scandal, Sampson finally acknowledged the real reason he had left Harkes at home: Harkes had been having an affair with Wynalda’s wife.
USA v Germany
USA v Iran
USA v Yugoslavia