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Op-Ed / John Haydon

Sampson destroyed U.S. unity with late changes to lineup

(Saturday, June 27, 1998) -- United States coach Steve Sampson gambled with new players and a new formation at the World Cup. But his strategy failed, and the special unity that had been forged by the players through the long qualifying process was sacrificed.

Although Sampson likes to talk about his wins over Brazil and Argentina, I think his greatest achievement was the scoreless tie with Mexico last November at Mexico City's gigantic Guillermo Canedo Stadium in World Cup qualifying. The wins over Brazil and Argentina were not against full squads, but the tie in Mexico City, where a visiting team rarely comes away with points, was the real thing.

Sadly, the team that rose to the occasion in Mexico and qualified for the finals in France was dismantled by Sampson. This ultimately led to the total failure of the United States at the World Cup.

"We had unbelievable togetherness (against Mexico) -- the whole team was really united," said John Harkes, the team's former captain. "We were a man down in that game, but we still earned a point. You don't break that kind of team up."

But Sampson did. After two meaningless losses against Holland and Belgium earlier this year, Sampson panicked and began to gut the team that had gotten him to France.

First went the captain, Harkes. "As far as I'm concerned, when he cut John Harkes he tore the heart out of the team and threw it on the floor and expected us to pick up the pieces," U.S. forward Eric Wynalda said in an interview this week with the San Diego Union Tribune.

Players who had helped the team qualify suddenly found themselves benched and replaced by newcomers with little international experience. "A lot of hard work and sacrifice went into qualifying, but Steve forgot that," Harkes said. "Steve broke up a great chemistry."

Sampson brought in Chad Deering, who won a starting spot based on just one game. Defender David Regis was guaranteed a starting role before becoming a citizen. Those changes didn't sit well with veterans like Alexi Lalas, Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos and Jeff Agoos. Suddenly, the unity of the team was threatened.

"You don't start experimenting with a team just before the World Cup," Harkes said. "Steve brought (in) new players in the last few games before the World Cup and then changed the team's formation. At the international level, you just don't do that."

According to Harkes, Sampson was an easy-going coach with relatively limited international experience when he started as U.S. coach. "In the early days, he would say, ‘You guys know more than me at this level. Go out and play,’ " Harkes said. "But after a while, things changed and he started dictating."

Gradually, a tension developed between Sampson and the team's veterans, and it blew up at the World Cup. "This World Cup was not about the U.S. national team," Wynalda said. "It was Steve Sampson trying to prove his worth. He wanted to prove he didn't need experience and he didn't need anybody or anything. It's sad. It's just sad."

The United States left France ranked last out of 32 in the finals. Blame was spread equally among players and the coach by a couple of local soccer figures.

"There were mistakes made by the coach and mistakes made by the players," George Mason University men's coach Gordon Bradley said. "The morale could have been better, and it's the coach's job to create morale."

Said Carin Gabarra, the most valuable player of the 1991 Women's World Cup, who currently plays with the W-League’s Maryland Pride: "Soccer is played on the field. The coach makes decisions, but the players make the decisions on the field."

John Haydon is the soccer columnist of the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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