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United States soccer hits one of its lowest points.

Commentary
By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, June 22, 1998) -- This is one of the lowest moments in United States soccer history.

Don't pay much attention to the positive spins following the disaster against Iran. Yes, the United States outplayed Iran, and it played attacking soccer. So what?

We lost to a team that barely qualified from Asia, where the other three entries -- Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan -- have been humiliated, scoring just one goal in losing all six matches, some in routs. We lost to a team that is working on its fourth coach since November.

I frankly would prefer an "ugly" victory to an "attractive" loss in the World Cup, and no setback to a mediocrity such as Iran can be attractive. This is a major blow to American hopes to grow soccer into a major sport.

Major League Soccer, hanging in surprisingly well for a World Cup year, was counting on a growth spurt in July, August and September with the return of U.S. national team players for the second half of the season. They'll be back, early, but let's not bang the drums too loudly. We simply don't have the talent to compete with the top 15-20 teams in the world.

That's self-evident from what's gone on in France. The national team is going to have to be rebuilt. The veterans can't cut it now; they certainly won't be able to in 2002. And don't hold your breath for 2010, when Nike's millions are supposed to transform the United States into a title contender. That's arrogance to the nth level.

I wonder how much money Nigeria puts into its world-class soccer team. Some thoughts:

* Let's not be blaming MLS. Who have been the best U.S. players in France? Frankie Hejduk: surfer, former collegian, Tampa Bay Mutiny; Eddie Pope: former collegian, (Washington) D.C. United; Brian McBride: former collegian, Columbus Crew.

* Coach Steve Sampson, sensing this spring that the United States didn't have personnel to compete with Germany and Yugoslavia, made a radical change, switching from the conventional 4-4-2 to a 3-6-1 to try to offset the physical and tactical advantages the European powers have at midfield.

It didn't work. The 4-4-2 wouldn't have succeeded, either, nor the 3-5-2, employed against Iran. It gets down to talent, though U.S. fans are right to be disappointed with the timidity of play by the Americans against Germany.

* We need to develop physically stronger and faster players who can play both offense and defense. We need to develop better attitudes. This is a two-way sport, no exceptions. Look at Juergen Klinsmann, a veteran striker for Germany. He hustles on defense. Look at veteran Peter Nowak, the Poland captain with Chicago Fire of MLS. He is an attacking midfielder who -- gasp! -- actually plays defense. We seem amazed by the concept.

The lineup presented by Sampson against Iran went overboard. Among those in the center of the field were Joe-Max Moore, Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna, and Roy Wegerle -- none known for his defense, to put it charitably. And this is against a team that had German Bundesliga starters in attacking roles. We put a lid on them, but not the others, and the result was two Iran goals, and a couple near-misses.

* This is hindsight, second-guessing, all of the above, but we would have preferred Thomas Dooley at one of the two defensive midfield slots, with either Alexi Lalas or Marcelo Balboa at sweeper. It was too much to ask both Brian Maisonneuve and Chad Deering, both international neophytes, to hold down new positions, defensive midfield, against Germany with little or no help in front of them.

We also would have started Hejduk at right wing midfield in the opener, not defender Mike Burns in a position he was unsuited for, and then brought in Preki Radosavljevic (if the United States was trailing) or Burns (if the United States was ahead or even) once he ran out of gas.

Sampson showed incredible faith in veteran forward Eric Wynalda, plagued by injuries the last two years. In fact, the coach deserves to be criticized for starting him the first game because the 3-6-1 requires a striker to (1) work back to midfield on occasion, (2) play well with his back to the goal, and (3) be strong on headers. Wynalda is none of these, and is an indifferent defensive player as well. The obvious choice was McBride, who was No. 3 on Sampson's list -- and didn't play against Germany.

So he missed several scoring opportunities in a World Cup tune-up against Macedonia. Big deal! At least he was in position to get the shots. No one has ever said he was a polished player. But he adds energy. He again got the shots against Iran, albeit in a 3-5-2, had bad luck early with the woodwork -- but persevered to get an ugly goal in the closing moments.

* Brent Musberger, now a soccer expert at ABC, said the United States could have used midfielder John Harkes, the captain cashiered by Sampson in mid-spring for having what the coach considered to be a bad attitude detrimental to the team. Really? Where would he play?

Attacking midfielder, his first love? I prefer Claudio Reyna and Ernie Stewart, and Joe-Max Moore, for that matter. Wing midfielder? I prefer Cobi Jones and Frankie Hejduk. Defensive midfielder? Perhaps. But all indications are that Harkes didn't "embrace" the position, didn't want to be a backup to the attacking midfielder. That's a shame, because the national team needs someone of stature at that position.

Marking (outside) back? Harkes also didn't embrace that position, something Bora Milutinovic suggested back in 1993. Furthermore, I prefer Eddie Pope and David Regis.

Is he among the top 22 players in the United States? Yes. Should he have been kept on the squad? If you were a coach, would you want an outspoken, proud two-time World Cup starter just dropped from the starting lineup, in the locker room?

Harkes' competitiveness was missed. We doubt he would have been "timid" against Germany as some of the starters appeared to be. But his skills aren't what they used to be; ball possession is erratic, and speed is barely average at best. He is not the first coach-player victim of the World Cup.

Fernando Redondo, a star midfielder with Real Madrid (Spain), isn't with the Argentina team. Eric Cantona, a brilliant striker, wasn't with France national team before retiring last year.

On the other hand: Edgar Davids, an outstanding defensive midfielder, wasn't with Netherlands for three years before making up with the Dutch coach this spring. Midfielder Enzo Scifo, in his fourth World Cup, wasn't on the Belgium national team for several months until this spring due to a conflict with the coach.

Lothar Matthaeus wasn't on the German national team for three years because of his derogatory comments -- until injuries forced the sweeper's recall this spring, and he was a key figure in the 2-2 tie with Yugoslavia, playing in a record 22nd World Cup game.

Forward Walter Boyd was off the Jamaica squad the past year until a tearful late-May apology to the coach for his outbursts got him a trip to France and playing time.

* The future national team coach?

Steve Sampson has contributed greatly to the growth of soccer in the United States. He was given an aging team that overachieved in the 1994 World Cup, and led them to considerable success in 1995 -- and to the historic win this year against Brazil. But the team, even though it improved considerably under his leadership, failed in France, and the coach probably must pay the price.

We think there should be a major future role for Sampson in U.S. soccer, and there's no hurry to decide on the national coach. We also believe Bruce Arena, the champion coach for D.C. United and before that Virginia, should also be a major participant -- whether as national coach or director of the massive 2010 development project. He has ruffled bureaucratic feathers with his candor, but that should not be a factor for a program that is in a crisis.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.