Episode 4: Decisions, Decisions
Roger Bennett: 1995. It was the year of the O.J Simpson verdict, Seinfeld, frappuccino is released across America, and a little website called Amazon sold its very first book. 1995 was also the year 22 soccer players from the US national team flew home from Uruguay feeling they were ready to take on the world. They'd beaten superpower, Argentina. They made a soccer God Diego marathon cry. They were prime now to start a qualification run for the 1998 World Cup. In their naive yet hard pounding little soccer hearts. They thought they could be giant killers, dark horses, a team with an outside shot at shocking the world and maybe laying claim to the cup itself.
Marcello Balboa: We had a swagger, but that wasn't arrogance, that's confidence. Confidence and arrogance are completely different for me. We were a confident team. When we walked out on the field, we knew that we could beat anybody in the world.
Roger Bennett: That's the United States, captain Marcello Balboa, he was at defensive rock, who also played club soccer professionally down in Mexico. Balboa had long been a fixture of the national team, and he was now gearing up to lead it into a World Cup qualifying run. It's a protracted process in which the US would play 16 games against their neighbors from across North and Central America and the Caribbean over the course of 12 months. Then have good results and they'd be in.
World Cup qualification is an ordeal in its own right. Victory it's never a given. The team's coach, Steve Sampson, he got to work and he had some decisions to make. His long term goal then was to qualify, to win his way into the World Cup. Day in and day out, it was as if Sampson was holding Broadway auditions, which players would make the cut. Who would own a starting role and in what position?
Marcello Balboa: The worst thing I ever did as I started thinking, okay, what does Samson want from me that I can do in this game today to get myself back a starting spot? That's what got to me.
Jeff Agoos: There were two different Steve. There was a Steve at the beginning of when he took the interim to about middle through the qualifying. Then there was a second type of Steve afterward.
Roger Bennett: This is Jeff Agoos. You've not met him before and we'll be returning to him soon. Just know for now he was a defender. Who'd been on and off the team since 1988. He was an established veteran by the time Steve arrived. The first Steve, that is.
Jeff Agoos: The first one was very inclusive. He brought a lot of people into the tent and asked a lot of questions, and he was very inquisitive.
Roger Bennett: Steve Sampson version one, defer to the players. I'm just grateful to have a job.
Jeff Agoos: Then the second type of Steve, was sort of, "I know what I'm doing and this is what I'm going to do. Your on the bus or you're not on the bus. I'm going to be driving this the way I want to drive it."
Roger Bennett: Steve Sampson version two. Who calls the shots? I do.
Steve Sampson: Did I feel that I had to do something different for a World Championship? Absolutely. If you don't evolve and try to influence change, that's when you get caught.
Alexi Lalas: He didn't want to let this car drive itself. I can respect that.
Roger Bennett: That's defender Alexi Lalas.
Alexi Lalas: I also think at times he wanted to literally sit in the driver's seat and drive it. I don't think that he was necessarily equipped to do that. I don't think that he recognized that wasn't going to get the car going as fast as it could. Most importantly, get it to the place that it needed to be.
Roger Bennett: Now, Lalas had become the face of the sport in the United States. Thanks, partly to his exploits in the 1994 World Cup and partly because of his subsequent move to play in Italy, Serie A, the world's best league at the time. He took to the field with a signature sweat fill ginger goatee and a side career as a minor rock star.
That's one of my favorite tracks from ginger. Alexi's debut album. A copy of which I own to this day. True fact, just three months after the 98 World Cup was said and done, Alexi's band. Yes, Alexi's band would go on to open for none other than Hootie & the Blowfish. Oh, this is American fiasco.
I'm Roger Bennett and this is American Fiasco. The show that proves that there is life off the soccer, especially if you knew the right Hootie. Back to decisions. Every national team squad requires a delicate balance between veterans and youth, between experience and speed. In the search for that balance, Marcella Balboa remembers another big decision Steve made.
Marcella Balboa: He came to Mexico and told me that I was no longer captain, that he was going to make John Harkes captain.
Roger Bennett: John Harkes was in and Balboa was out and he was surprised. Balboa had been a fine captain, he'd been on the national team since the late 1980s. He'd represented this country in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. Hhis personality, he was humble, he was a low-key guy. He had this calm under pressure demeanor, and an all [unintelligible 00:06:08]. I think both were crucial to his success as a physically dominant defender.
Now, John Harkes, he was a different animal, a scrappy, tenacious Jersey boy. He loved being at the center of things. He was the first American to play in the elite English Premier League. For that, he was respected and revered. In England, he'd learned to thrive in locker rooms that were filled with ego, sarcasm, and quick-witted put-downs. As a result, he was already a big personality on this squad. He was the one willing to yell at referees, he'd even yell at his own teammates if he thought they deserved it.
As a midfielder, he was again best positioned to direct Steve Sampson's aggressive offense, that strategy that Steve called forward mindedness. You called him captain for life.
Steve Sampson: I know. I don't know where that came from, but what I said was, as long as I'm the national team coach, he was my captain.
Roger Bennett: One decision down, one bajillion to go. In football as in life, decisions have consequences and Steve's decisions to replace Balboa as captain left the defender shaken.
Marcella Balboa: It just messes with you mentally, you know what I mean? Because you're this confident defender who has been the mainstay. You were the captain for a while. All of a sudden now you're rattled, it affected me leading into qualifying because I didn't play every game. Samson put me on the bench in quite a few games.
Roger Bennett: What was he looking for?
Marcella Balboa: I don't know. That was the sad part, is I didn't know. He never sat me down and told me you need to do this, this and this and this and this. The thought process was okay, I'll figure it out myself. I go back and watch the tape and I'd say, "Okay, maybe I did that wrong." Again, mentally, it just got to me, because I always played thinking what he wanted and not what I wanted. You can't play like that. It's not how you play the game of soccer. You're supposed to play freely, supposed to play it in enjoy. You're supposed to do your job. When you start thinking of what the other coach wants, you play even worse.
Roger Bennett: John Harkes the new captain, he didn't deal in doubt.
Alexi Lalas: John was a pioneer of sorts.
Roger Bennett: That's Alexi Lalas.
Alexi Lalas: Because he was a guy that had not only played in the 1990 World Cup, but also had already gone overseas and blazed that path for so many others later on. Not only had been there, but had had success, was a name. I want to say, I didn't look up to him, but I respected that this was somebody that could make me better.
Roger Bennett: Now the team had a press officer, Jim Froslid and he went everywhere the players went, on planes, buses, meals, locker rooms. He watched them all coalesce around their new leader, John Harkes, and in turn he saw Harkes cement his position.
Jim Froslid: He was the captain for life. When you have that, what do you think as a player? You're on top of the world. You can't knock him down.
Roger Bennett: Untouchable.
Jim Froslid: Untouchable.
Roger Bennett: It's important to know this. As the US players set out to qualify for the 1998 World Cup. Only five of them had ever been through this kind of trial before. That was way back in 1990. In 1994, the team didn't even have to qualify because the US hosted the World Cup and hosts, they get an automatic spot. This time it was different. Here's how you win a golden ticket to the World Cup.
The US first had to survive an initial round of 6 games and qualify for a second round of 10 more games, known snappily as the hacks. For the players, this test is both physical and psychological. Stifling heat, waterlogged fields, high altitude, smog, and in every city they travel to a stadium filled with people who truly hate them.
Marcelo Balboa: Well, imagine 115,000, when people you look up, it's pretty intimidating.
Roger Bennett: Marcelo Balboa describing a match in Mexico.
Marcelo Balboa: As you walk up off the top tier, there's a big long rope and you see this body coming over the top. It's a dummy dressed in a US National team's uniform that just bounced, literally hung, maybe 50 feet from us, but they throw from the top tier and it just hung there.
Roger Bennett: With a noose around his head?
Marcelo Balboa: Yes, with a noose around his head.
Roger Bennett: Then there was that time in Costa Rica. Worst thing that was thrown at you was what?
Jeff Agoos: Well, worst thing that was thrown is probably a bag of urine.
Marcelo Balboa: Jeff Agoos, the defender.
Jeff Agoos: It was me, Jeff, it was me. But those C batteries, those hurt too, if they get through the fence.
Roger Bennett: Even as they're getting pelted with debris, and bags of piss. It's important to note, the players they're not just competing against other teams, they're also competing as individuals against each other. Even if their team qualifies for the cup, there's no sure thing they'll be on that final 22-man roster.
Brad Friedel: When you get to a national team, every single player there is a starter or you wouldn't be getting called into your national team. Because very rarely do players that don't get playing time for their club teams get called into the national team.
Roger Bennett: Goalkeeper Brad Friedel.
Brad Friedel: If you did a poll with every national team player around, guys that were starting on the bench and you said, "Do you feel like you're a number two in your position?" They would say, "No."
Roger Bennett: On September 7th, 1997, another game, another surprise decision.
Marcelo Balboa: All of a sudden we were like, what the hell is going on? Why are we making a change the day of the game? It's unheard of, unless someone is hurt.
Roger Bennett: Steven benched Alexi Lalas, the long-serving defender, the face of the team, out for the first time in four years. Eric Wynalda, he was also out the team, but with injury. He remembers returning to his hotel room, a room he shared with Lalas.
Eric Wynalda: We had both found out that we weren't playing. I came into the room and Alexi was standing on top of the air conditioning unit facing the city and probably the 10th floor of a hotel with a guitar, a shower cap, in his underwear. I walked in and I said, "Are you okay?" He goes, "Nope," and I said, "I'll give you 10 minutes. I'll be back." I just shut the door and left. Because we were all in this state of mind of, what is happening.
Roger Bennett: What was happening is this. The team's highest profile player, the closest thing they had to a star had been reduced to playing guitar, mournfully in his [unintelligible 00:12:56]. Here he is Alexi Lalas.
Alexi Lalas: You're not in the starting lineup, it happens to everybody, it's not something that I like and so I could see what was coming. Usually as you get closer and closer to the World Cup, your set 11 starts to materialize and people know what's going on, and so I knew what was going on.
Roger Bennett: Steve Sampson was starting to whittle a team down within his mind to the 22 players he'd take to the World Cup if America qualified. Every game, every move, he was sizing his guys up, and they knew it. How did that feel?
Alexi Lalas: It sucked, because I felt that you dance with the ones that brung you.
Roger Bennett: In truth, the players weren't the only ones feeling the pressure. Steve might not have been called the interim coach any longer, but his contract also didn't stretch all the way through the World Cup and US Soccer boss Alan Rothenberg was making him sweat. Hank Steinbrecher another Federation executive remembers.
Hank Steinbrecher: He was always interim in Alan's mind. The joke was he carried a pink slip with him all the time, because he felt putting pressure on the coach was the way to go.
Roger Bennett: By November 1997, the American position, it was tenuous. They were seven games into the 10 of their second and final qualification round and they managed only two wins, four ties, and one loss.
Steve Sampson: I knew my job was in jeopardy.
Roger Bennett: Three games to go, doubt was setting in, it felt like US Soccer could yank Steve at any moment. In fact, they were already courting a successor, the Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz. So Steve flew to Mexico in November 1997 for a crucial game, one of the most important of his career. They'd never beaten or even tied Mexico on their home turf, in the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, it's as terrifying as they come. Picture 105,000 frenzy Mexican fans, eager to delight in American misery as their players had to battle a triple threat of altitude, smoke and noise.
Marcelo Balboa: You go in there and you go into the locker room and it's underneath all of the stairs and all the fans, with everything that's going on. People have been there for hours, people have had a lot of alcohol, they're ready to go. It's a cacophony of sound.
Steve Sampson: You cannot hear yourself think inside that environment.
Roger Bennett: Watching the game, I can't say how much thinking happened on the field that day but I'll cut to the chase. The Americans got the tie they needed 0-0, that was a huge deal. Especially because one of their players had been sent off the field after a first-half red card, sending the team down a player.
The tenacious performance, gaining a draw, the whole thing was so impressive that the Mexican fans gave the American team a standing ovation as they left the field.
Marcelo Balboa: They were yelling, good job, you got lucky.
Roger Bennett: What did that prove to you?
Marcelo Balboa: You know what it proved us, is that we can win anywhere in the world.
Roger Bennett: That world includes Canada.
Commentator: There it is. The USA have done it. A transcending moment.
Roger Bennett: Just one week after the Mexico game, the US team qualifies for the 1998 World Cup in a shutout game against the Canadians. The normally controlled Steve Sampson is almost maniacally giddy beaming, he put one arm around Alan Rothenberg, the other around Hank Steinbrecher the two US Soccer executives who control this fate.
Steve Sampson: I must smoke a cigar with you tonight because [crosstalk]
Roger Bennett: The ESPNs cameras caught the celebration in the locker room [cheering]. Steve spraying his players with champagne. The whole scene is a little disconcerting, like watching your high school civics teacher beast out of a house party.
Steve Sampson: I can't tell you how proud I am to be your coach, what an honor it is. So proud of each and every one of you, you deserve this 100%. We're on to France, boys.
Roger Bennett: Steve takes a moment to put his arm around his captain for life, John Harkes and ESPN captured this moment too.
ESPN: Next, a coach and his captain.
Steve Sampson: You third World Cup.
John Harkes: I know.
Steve Sampson: Can you believe it?
John Harkes: Sure, I know.
ESPN: All when we continue.
Roger Bennett: Do you remember what he says?
John Harkes: Yes. We're going to your third World Cup?
Roger Bennett: He says you going to your third World Cup. Can you believe it?
John Harkes: I said, "No, I can't, this is brilliant.
Roger Bennett: Now, as you know, because I've told you, not all of the players celebrating in the locker room on that November day, would actually get to play in the World Cup. Here' Captain John Harkes.
John Harkes: I thought the way that we had performed and the way that we came together on the team, that all of these guys in this room had fought for each other, they deserve to go.
Roger Bennett: Deserving, that's got nothing to do with it. One of the biggest open questions was which of the two goalkeepers Steve would start. Through out qualification two men, Kasey Keller, and Brad Friedel, they'd been alternating in that role.
Kasey Keller: It wasn't only a case where, I was trying to show myself to be the best player that I was.
Roger Bennett: That's Keller.
Kasey Keller: But I'm also trying to show it to your coaches and trying to show it to the fans and trying to show it to the press that I'm the guy that should be starting.
Brad Friedel: I wouldn't categorize ourselves as friends or enemies during that, it was a strange time period.
Roger Bennett: Brad Friedel.
Brad Friedel: What I can say, thankfully and I'm very happy about it is we're friends now.
Roger Bennett: Jim Frosty told me, he said it's one of the most intense rivalries on the team. He said when there was a team photo--
Kasey Keller: Oh, definitely.
Roger Bennett: When there was a team photo, you two were even sensitive about who carried the football under their arm in that team photo.
Kasey Keller: [laughs] That might be-- It was hard.
Roger Bennett: It's February 10th, 1998, and we're in Los Angeles. Keller is starting in goal, it's a huge game against Brazil at the LA Coliseum. Now Brazil, and no joke, they're the reigning World Cup champion and like their neighbor Argentina- a global footballing phenomena. Remember, the US team by now they've secured their place in the World Cup, but not every player on the US team had earned a ticket on the plane to France. From the opening whistle, Keller kept goal like a man determined to clinch the starting position over the course of the next 90 minutes.
Commentator: That one could have been disastrous.
Kasey Keller: There was a couple times, I remember there was one save and the ball took a deflection or something and I completely dove, I was going the wrong way. Sometimes there's a benefit to having size 13 feet, I remember just sticking a foot out and just catching it with the end of my toe, as if I had tipped it with my fingers, just goes around the far post off my foot. That was the one where I really thought, "This could be my day."
Commentator: He's done a good job to quickly come off of his line to cut down the angle, and ultimately saves the ball with his leg.
John Harkes: The best goalkeeping display ever, fantastic. He really pulled it off.
Roger Bennett: That's John Harkes. In the 41st minute, Brazil crossed the ball. Their striker, Romario, he's only one of the greatest goal-scorers the game has ever seen. He leaps up, he's just a few feet away from the goal line, he rises up, as he has thousands of times before, and the goal is positively yawning open on either side of an exposed American keeper. Point blank, he fires a header right at you.
Kasey Keller: It was one of those situations where you're just spreading yourself.
Commentator: Edmundo, plays it wide, right side. Romario plays it into the area. The cross infront, the header and a save. What a diving save by Kasey Keller, and again robbing Romario.
Commentator 2: That is absolutely phenomenal, and Steve Sampson, I don't think he can believe the save that Kasey Keller just made there, pointblank. He not only saves it, but he holds it.
Kasey Keller: I'm on the ground, and he's kind of sitting over me because he's like me, more surprised that I've caught it. I'm sitting down at his feet and I remember him putting his hand out to shake my hand in the middle of the game.
Roger Bennett: Looking at you, it's like you don't even know how to react. You kind of half-smile and then try to--
Kasey Keller: [laughs] Actually, I'd never had it happen before, I hadn't had it happen since. I guarantee you, Romario probably had never done it before and didn't even know why he did it.
Roger Bennett: Kasey Keller won the right to be a starter in the World Cup based on how he performed against Brazil in the Gold Cup. It's now the 60th minute and the game is still scoreless. Steve substitutes in a Yugoslavian-born midfielder, a man who'd joined the team just 14 months earlier. He'd become an American citizen to do so. His full name is Predrag Radosavljević, but everyone calls him Preki.
Commentator: Wynalda working on four Brazilian players. Wynalda, there's Preki on his left foot, the shot the goal.
Roger Bennett: That goal. If you think it sounds good, wait until you hear it in Spanish.
Spanish Commentator: [Spanish].
Jim Froslid: If it was on his left foot, you knew he had a chance.
Roger Bennett: Jim Froslid is the team's Communications Director, and he was watching the goal from the press box.
Jim Froslid: I erupted, which is the absolute taboo to do in a press box. I yelled and screamed, so did half the reporters. It was like this euphoric moment that everyone kind of crossed this ethical line and we're all like, "Holy smokes, we're going to beat the Brazilians."
Commentator: It is over, and the US has beaten Brazil 1-0, Preki the game winning goal, in the 65th minute.
Roger Bennett: This was big. The US had never beaten Brazil at soccer before, it never has since. You've just beaten Brazil 1-0, are you like, "Let the World Cup starts tomorrow."
John Harkes: Let's be honest-
Roger Bennett: That's John Harkes again.
John Harkes: -at the time you're thinking, we're growing towards a World Cup, we're getting the results, we're doing well as a nation, we're all part of this.
Roger Bennett: All part of this, at least that's what Harkes thought. ESPN anchor Bob Ley remembers exactly where he was when he heard about Steve Sampson's next decision.
Bob Ley: I was about to do a two-hour show with President Bill Clinton. It was a town meeting on race and sports.
Roger Bennett: Ley, he must be one of the few sportscasters who can spend all week talking about jocks on SportsCenter and then just turn around and interview the leader of the Free World. He's a long-time soccer aficionado too, and he handled all of ESPN's US National Team coverage. On April 14, 1998, he was down in Houston, Texas.
Bob Ley: I got the email from the Press Officer of the team, said "I've just sent out the roster."
Roger Bennett: At the time Ley figured the email could wait. Remember, he was about to talk to the President of the United States of America and this game it was only a warm-up, a mundane friendly against Austria. But Jim Froslid, the Press Officer, was insistent and he urged Ley to take a close look at that roster.
Bob Ley: I'm about to deal with the President for two hours so I'm a little bit preoccupied. I look at it, and I did miss the fact that John Harkes' name was not on there. I had to send an email back, "What do you mean?" He says, "Oh, my gosh! They cut the captain!"
Roger Bennett: John Harkes, the captain for life. Life expectancy clearly not what it used to be.
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