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Book review

Bitter Harkes closes with blistering shots at Sampson.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

John Harkes (Monday, June 14, 1999) -- John Harkes, probably the most accomplished field player in United States soccer history, felt humiliated when dumped by coach Steve Sampson on the eve of his third World Cup last year. He's responded in full with a blistering attack in "John Harkes: Captain for Life and Other Temporary Jobs (Sleeping Bear Press, $24.95, 228 pages)," assisted by Denise Kiernan.

Want to read about his career -- starting in Kearny, N.J., then proceeding to University of Virginia, the U.S. Olympic team, starting in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, playing in the England Premier League, returning to help launch Major League Soccer on dominant D.C. United? That's the first 10 chapters.

Want his take on the controversy with Sampson, who dropped him three months before France '98? That's the last two chapters.

Harkes not only disputed the reasons for his dismissal, he ridiculed the coach (who resigned after the United States finished last in the World Cup), saying he made numerous personnel and tactical errors during training camp, and turned his back on several veterans key in World Cup qualifying when he brought in four new starters. There is no doubt that he had little respect for Sampson the past few years.

Harkes wrote that his alleged transgressions -- reluctance to play defense, late pre-game partying before a game in Belgium, a missed plane flight, a missed bus and "leadership" problems -- even if true did not warrant him being left off the squad.

One excerpt in the book foreword from his friend and coach at Virginia and D.C. United is interesting. Writes Bruce Arena, the new national coach: "Admittedly, our soccer relationship has not always been the smoothest ride for either one of us. We have had our disagreements and tense moments . . . Overall, I think we can both say it's been a good relationship for two rather stubborn and competitive individuals."

Then there's this indirect comment attributed by Harkes to Sampson's assistant coach, Clive Charles: "He . . . said he didn't think Steve knew how to handle me."

Some other excerpts from Captain for Life:

* "When he came on board as interim coach in 1995, the players took him for who he was and we liked the way he worked with us. We knew he didn't have a lot of experience, but he was always up front and honest about it. It's when he started to feel the pressure and began to overcoach that the situation got out of hand."

* "Steve's coaching techniques and constant fiddling earned him the title of D. of T.': Director of Tactics. In meetings, he would stop the videotape and examine every little play. He was constantly stopping our training sessions to tell a player he needed to be five more yards out this way or that, overanalyzing every move. He wouldn't just let us play.

* " . . . You've heard of micro-managing? Well, Steve was micro-coaching . . . Not having played professionally, let alone internationally, and without a successful coaching career behind him, Steve's book smarts lacked credibility to a group of guys who had hundreds and hundreds of caps among them. It had been said that the more he coached, the worse we got."

Harkes gets specific, referring to the 1-1 qualifying match against Jamaica: "We started the game playing a 3-5-2, not a formation we had much experience with. I remember discussing the formation with a few others. We thought it would be a mistake to change from a 4-4-2 and that we might have to waste a substitute too early in the game if the 3-5-2 wasn't working. That's exactly what happened. Steve substituted Jeff Agoos for Mike Sorber in the first half, and we moved back to a 4-4-2."

"After the Gold Cup, Steve criticized me for being inconsistent. Maybe I didn't play my best. But like all the veteran players, I was focused on the World Cup and hoped to be on form in June, not February."

"One and a half years of traveling to Central America, producing results, and having bags of urine thrown on you by angry fans apparently counted for nothing. The coach who talked about the importance of team chemistry took on players weeks before the beginning of the World Cup who had never been on the field with the team."

"The new guys . . . had a trip to France handed to them on a silver platter. Welcome to the national team: here's a chance to play in the greatest tournament in the world. They didn't have to go through the battles that some of us did.

" . . . It's all about consistency, not flash-in-the-pan performances, (Steve) was putting a huge amount of pressure on young, internationally inexperienced players . . ."

"Four new starters in the World Cup were defender David Regis, probably the top U.S. player in France; wing midfielder Frankie Hejduk, who did so well that Bayer Leverkusen of Germany signed him up afterwards; and defensive midfielders Chad Deering and Brian Maissoneuve, neither of whom distinguished themselves."

"I can't think of one thing that Steve did right in the months leading up to the World Cup," Harkes said. ". . . To this day (he) has not accepted any real responsibility for the failure in France, choosing instead to reconstruct history, blame the players and criticize MLS and the U.S. development system."

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at

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