Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach, was standing on a low stage giving an interview when he saw his striker Eric Wynalda walk by below him. To pass through the various groups of reporters, Wynalda had to take a circuitous route, turning right and left and back and forth again and again. He was like an expensive jewel that had fallen down the bathroom sink and was at the mercy of the plumbing. At 29, in what should have been his prime year as a striker, he'd had his World Cup career flushed away. On his way out of the press area he slammed the door behind him—which, it might make Wynalda happy to know, made Sampson jump a little.
This untidy scene occurred late on Sunday night in the bowels of the Stade de Ger-land in Lyons, France, after U.S. hopes of reaching the World Cup's second round had ended with a 2-1 loss to Iran. For the Americans, the tournament was over even though they still had one game left, against Yugoslavia on Thursday. Wynalda, the alltime leading U.S. scorer, had gone two matches without firing a shot. He had been benched in the 63rd minute of the opening game, a 2-0 loss to Germany, and hadn't played against Iran. His removal was one of a series of coaching decisions that will almost surely cost Sampson his job.
In all fairness, U.S. impotence around the goal predates Sampson's tenure. The Americans struck Iran's woodwork three times before Brian McBride finally plowed a header over the line with six minutes to go, a late success that brought greater perspective to the U.S. failures. It was just the fifth U.S. goal in nine World Cup matches covering the last four decades. Meanwhile, Holland and Argentina each scored five goals in an hour and a half last weekend.
Iran uncovered the inadequacies of U.S. soccer plainly and deliberately. The Iranian players, raised during the 1979 revolution, the ensuing bloody purges by the Ayatullah Khomeini and the eight-year war with Iraq, grew up playing in the streets or on dirt fields with cheap plastic soccer balls. They had no coaching to speak of until their mid-teens and no realistic hope of their national team's advancing to the world's greatest stage, yet they persisted. In defeating the Americans for Iran's first World Cup victory, they exhibited an ear for the game, whereas the U.S. players seemed to be reading from sheet music. Despite the enormous political pressure weighing on them to defeat "the Great Satan," the Iranian strikers composed themselves, held the ball, waited for the American defenders to converge and then burst forward into newly vacated spaces.
Had the U.S. exhibited such patience, it would have won in a rout, because it was on the attack twice as often as its opponents, all but five of whom play in the semipro Iranian league. But rather than calm down around the target, the Americans fluttered like moths around a lightbulb. Sampson will have to take responsibility for this.
Lacking a go-to guy, the U.S. might have relied on organization, experience and the unspoken understanding among its players, which should have existed on a team appearing in its third consecutive World Cup. But its supply of those qualities began to shrink two months ago when Sampson, without public warning, released John Harkes, the 31-year-old midfielder who was then the U.S. captain. Sampson wanted to hand on-field control of the team over to 24-year-old Claudio Reyna, who was finishing his first year as a starting playmaker in Germany's Bundesliga. Sampson believed that Harkes's ego was out of control, that he was no longer coachable and that he would not accept a secondary, defensive role behind Reyna. In hindsight, Sampson was naive. The U.S. needed as many strong personalities as possible.
"Steve lost sight of how hard it is just to qualify for the World Cup, of what we went through just to make it," Harkes said from his home near Washington, D.C., after watching the U.S. loss on TV. "He didn't realize how really together we were as a team, how well we knew each other. I watch the team play now, and that understanding is not there."
After cutting Harkes, Sampson installed a 3-6-1 formation, with six midfielders and a lone striker, in the hope of stuffing the more talented Germans and Yugoslavs before they threatened the U.S. penalty box. This change from the Americans' traditional 4-4-2 formation led to the benching of longtime defenders Alexi Lalas, 28, and Marcelo Balboa, 30. Fellow veteran Tab Ramos, 31, recently recovered from knee surgery, didn't start against Germany because Sampson felt he wouldn't be a good fit in midfield with Reyna.
It would have been one thing if Reyna had fought for control of the squad. Then he would have been ready to lead his teammates against the Germans. Instead, Sampson handed the keys of the family van to a group of players—Mike Burns, Chad Deering, Brian Maisonneuve and Reyna—who had no World Cup experience. In the opening minute against Germany, Reyna was knocked flat on his face by thuggish midfielder Jens Jeremies. Altogether the Americans looked as if they had inadvertently stumbled into a rough part of town.
For the match against Iran, Sampson made five lineup changes. He scrapped the 3-6-1 to start McBride and Roy Wegerle as strikers, and he let Reyna walk the ball up-field like a point guard. The strategy worked fine until the Americans came within 30 yards of the goal. From there they lacked the imagination to work the ball inside. They couldn't predict each other's movements, because they didn't know each other well enough. They were like a basketball team that settled for the perimeter jump shot.