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U.S. World Cup failure means Sampson must pay the price.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, June 29, 1998) -- Steve Sampson ended the media frenzy calling for his head by resigning today. The United States soccer coach wouldn't have been rehired anyway, so the semantics make little difference.

Aside from timing, this has nothing to do with the criticism issued by some whining veteran players in recent days, though it probably will help stem the hemorrhaging for American soccer. The national team failed to win a game at the World Cup, and it's customary and right for the coach to pay the price.

Sampson was dead after the loss to Iran. And as a result of the dismal first half against opening foe Germany, he would have been very questionable even with a win against Iran.

Sampson, nevertheless, made a solid contribution to the growth of soccer since taking over in 1995. He established an attack-first mentality on the national team, and worked tirelessly. The media will miss his accessibility, which helped grow the sport. But he was in a no-win situation. The nucleus of the team was aging -- and this isn't Germany we're talking about. For a long while only Eddie Pope emerged as a new face.

New blood was needed. It finally arrived -- Frankie Hejduk, Brian Maisonneuve, David Regis, Chad Deering, even Brian McBride -- but too late. There wasn't enough time for them to jell.

Much criticism after the fact has been made about the 3-6-1 formation used by Sampson against European powers Germany and Yugoslavia. He said, justifiably, that the United States couldn't match up man-for-man in the midfield, thus needed extra numbers.

We felt the Deering-Maisonneuve pairing at defensive midfield was too inexperienced, and would have preferred moving Thomas Dooley there from central defense. That would have opened a slot in the back -- perhaps for Alexi Lalas or Marcelo Balboa. We also would have liked McBride in the sole striker slot the entire tournament.

Eric Wynalda? He may be the all-time U.S. scorer with 32 goals, but he has had just two in his last 18 matches -- one against Cuba, the other a penalty kick against Jamaica. Furthermore, he missed seven games due to injuries, including several weeks leading up to the World Cup. Plus, he doesn't fit in the 3-6-1.

John Harkes? It's hard to see him in a starting lineup, whether it's 3-6-1, 4-4-2, or 3-5-2. Defensive midfielder? Possibly. But he has to embrace it and play a secondary offensive role to Claudio Reyna. Lothar Mattheaus, in his fifth World Cup for Germany, used to be an attacking midfielder. He's now a sweeper and has been for several years.

Is Harkes in the top 22? Yes. Does he belong on the squad because of his starting role in World Cup qualifying, and do Jeff Agoos, Alexi Lalas, Preki Radosavljevic, Marcelo Balboa, and other veterans deserve playing time for the same reason? No.

Two starting strikers for Mexico for most of World Cup qualifying: Carlos Hermosillo and Luis Alberto Alves (Zague). Two starting midfielders: Benjamin Galindo and Alberto Coyote. The four weren't even named to the World Cup squad after Coach Bora Milutinovic was fired.

The new coach, Manuel Lapuente, can't be criticized too much for the dismissals. Mexico was the most entertaining team in the World Cup, fighting Germany tooth and nail Monday before losing, 2-1, after rallies in the first round netted draws against favored Netherlands and Belgium and a victory against South Korea.

World Cup qualifying is one phase; World Cup is another. The coach has to pick the system and the players for both, and they don't have to be identical. It may not seem fair, and probably isn't certainly from the point of view of team members who participated in the CONCACAF qualifying rounds and point to a couple ties against Mexico in the process.

Where Sampson came up short is not making the decision to go young earlier -- at least right after the qualifying late last fall, rather than April. He has done a favor for his successor -- the transition for 2002 already has started.

Much more needs to be done, and we see only one person who can go the next step and make the United States respectable in the next World Cup -- Major League Soccer and former collegiate and Olympic super coach Bruce Arena.

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