Frankie Hejduk: What I didn't really realize how freaking big those dudes were, man. These guys, their freaking thighs were twice the size of mine. I'm like, "This is how soccer is?" I'm like, "These guys are freaking monsters."
Roger Bennett: It's June 15th, 1998. The final minutes before the US men's national team kick off their first game at the World Cup. They're in the tunnel waiting to take the field. Their opponents Germany are waiting there with them. As the Americans are well aware, Germany, it's one of the best teams on the planet. That didn't concern midfielder Frankie Hejduk.
Frankie: I couldn't wait to go at the Germans. I was not intimidated whatsoever. For me, the Germans- they meant the same as a high school player that I was just playing against. Before that World Cup, I probably couldn't name five guys on that team.
Roger: The veteran starting striker Eric Wynalda. He played professionally in Germany against these very guys.
Eric Wynalda: I knew Olaf Thon, and Kohler had marked me several times. Christian Wörns was-- Those guys were laughing at me. I'll never forget Kohler saying, "Du hast keine Chance," which means I got no chance. "Eins gegen drei?" It's one that gets three.
Roger: What did you say?
Eric: I think I just responded, "Ich weiß," which means I know. "You're right. Du hast Recht."
Roger: This is American Fiasco.
This is American Fiasco, the show that's never afraid to talk about the size of German thighs. I'm Roger Bennett. Eins gegen drei. One against three. The Germans were laughing about something specific. It was a new on the field formation US coach Steve Sampson had implemented shortly before the World Cup. It was called the 3-6-1.
Frankie: I don't know where it came from. If you saw it at a club level or if you saw it professionally, we had no clue where that 3-6-1 came from.
Roger: No one plays that.
Frankie: He was an innovator. What do you want me to say? Listen, we were just as confused as everybody else was. We had no clue.
Roger: Permit me to grab my coaching chalkboard and try and explain this to you. There's loads of ways a coach can position his players around the soccer field. Loads of them. For years, the USA played a common formation called 4-4-2. It's mundane. It means four players on defense, there's four in the middle, you have two strikers upfront who have to try and score the goals.
Two months before the World Cup, Samson shook things up. He put three players in the back, six across the middle and left just one lonely striker, Eric Wynalda there up top. The 3-6-1 formation, it's rarely used. For one, it's complex. It requires players to be experienced, well drilled to understand each other's moves as a collective. It's also incredibly physically demanding. Every player has to be prepared to run up and down, up and down the field for an entire 90 minutes. When it works, the formation's fast, lethal, clinical, but when it doesn't, it can bog the team down and destroy them almost before a ball has been kicked.
Frankie: Nobody understood it. Nobody knew it.
Roger: Defender Jeff Agoos.
Jeff Agoos: Steve tried to teach it during trainings. It worked in maybe one game and that's about it. We were all scratching our head going, "What do we do?"
Eric: For all of our talk about being more progressive, when it really came down to it, we were going to regress to a certain extent.
Roger: Veteran defender Alexi Lalas.
Alexi Lalas: For a lot of us it almost represented a betrayal of what we wanted to be.
Frankie: You know what? I have to agree with Alexi 100% on that.
Roger: Above all, as Marcelo Balboa explained the 3-6-1. It was a cautious and defensive tactic. [unintelligible 00:04:57] and the total opposite of everything that had brought the US to the 1998 World Cup. You remember that attack first strategy that Stephen once proudly called "forward mindedness."
Eric: We were, "Let's conquer the world." Now we were, "Whatever we do when we go out that door, make sure you don't do this and you don't do that and don't mess up."
Roger: That's a striker, Eric Wynalda.
Eric: We were thinking about failing, not thinking about success.
Marcelo Balboa: I think this was where Sampson wanted to make it his team.
Roger: Marcelo Balboa.
Marcelo: I think there was a point where he lost a lot of the players. When you lose key players on your team, you lose your team.
Steve Sampson: I still believe to this day, it was the right thing to do. These were decisions based on what I felt was, was best for the team.
Roger: Coach, Steve Sampson.
Steve: Looking at all of the videotape of Germany, I felt that it was really important for us to control the midfield and to overload the midfield to prevent them from playing through the midfield. I felt that our back line, even with three in the back line, we could manage their front runners.
Roger: Do you feel like this 3-6-1 is almost a device that has been used to misrepresent what happened at the time?
Steve: Yes, I think both parties deserve some of the blame or responsibility with that whole process. Literally, I started playing it months in advance of the World Cup. Not one player came to me and said that this was not the right system. If they were truly concerned about the system of play, my relationship with them was such that they could bring to me any kind of complaint, any kind of concern, and not one player did.
Roger: Did you guys tell him you hated it?
Roger: He swears no one ever complained.
Eric: To my recollection, I complained a lot about it. I felt that I wasn't getting enough help, particularly in the game against-
Roger: The game against Germany, the team's first at the World Cup, when the Americans would need to give their all to win, or at least tie, Eric Wynalda, he'd lost confidence in his ability to play at all for Steve Sampson.
Eric: It's the only time in my life that I went to my manager and said, "I'm not your guy. I'm not the one. I don't want to be the one. I'll come off the bench. If we're going to go with this 3-6-1, I'm not the guy. Steve was so far into his ideology that he said, "I think you are."
Frankie: I don't know why they were complaining about that.
Roger: That's Frankie Hejduk, possibly the only other person, apart from Steve Sampson, who liked the 3-6-1.
Frankie: For the first time, I felt like I had a role that I could go wherever I want, and sometimes, for the most part I had cover.
Roger: It was also for you. It's liberating. You'll just run.
Frankie: You run up and down, back and forth. It was a position built for a guy like me, a runner.
Roger: Frankie Hejduk, he was always a little different. He was the one who revered Bob Marley while the rest of the squad, they spent their time listening to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and of course, Van Halen.
Frankie: Those guys were very close. They were all friends. They all lived together. They all were different personalities. Some were from-- "Hey, Hendrix, be quiet, buddy. That's my son. Sorry, guys." [laughs]
Roger: Hendrix is one of Frankie's four kids. Another one's named after Bob Marley. I'm at his house near Columbus, Ohio. While he loves Columbus, sadly for him, the city is about as far away as you can get from the ocean.
Frankie: My number one love was surfing. All my buddies were surfers. All my friends were professional surfers. I wanted to be a professional surfer. For some reason also, I played soccer.
Roger: Those soccer skills got Frankie a scholarship at UCLA where he first came to the attention of Steve. Next step, he was invited to try out for the US men's national team. Before we knew it, in 1997, Frankie was selected for the national squad on a trip to China to play against their national finest. The night before they left, the team was staying together at a hotel in Pasadena.
Frankie: I just left my stuff at the hotel and I went to UCLA to go hang out and--
Roger: UCLA, about 45 minutes west of Pasadena. Frankie's old stomping ground.
Frankie: Girls and bros and beers.
Roger: It was a lot more fun.
Frankie: This or China. Next thing I know, I wake up. Ten o'clock in the morning, the next day, and our flight is at 10:30, and I'm at UCLA. I was like, "Oh my God." I called Steve Sampson. I was like, "Hi, good coach. I'm at someone's house. I don't have a car to get anywhere right now. I really don't know what to do." He goes, "I'm very disappointed in you. We'll talk when we get back."
Roger: Frankie Hejduk mightn't have got to China, but his luggage sure did.
Brian McBride: His bag haunted us.
Roger: This is another teammate, Brian McBride.
Brian: Every fucking time we got to the airport, we saw Frankie's bag, and I'm like, "Oh, that fuck."
Frankie: That one was one of them where I was like, "Oof, man, did I just blow it?
Roger: I rate Samson punished Frankie, leaving him off the team for the next six months. Then the following year, Hejduk had experienced just six minutes of playing time total. Once the 3-6-1 was devised, Steve Sampson knew that Frankie, fast and energetic, would be a perfect fit. In 1998, Steve decided to bring Frankie Hejduk out of the cold and straight into the World Cup.
Steve: Anybody that serves 20-foot ways has to be a little bit crazy. The thing is that that man is fearless. I love him for that. That's what he brought onto the field.
Roger: Upon arriving in France, the US had that new system in place. Frankie Hejduk could do with it, but almost no one else did. He relied on pace and flexibility, which meant veteran defensive warhorses, Alexi Lalas and Marcello Balboa, they were benched. On top of that, the team had just spent two weeks going stir crazy. That isolated Chateau in wine country. The good news, in Paris, they finally got a chance to sign some autographs.
Let the games begin. The first round of the World Cup, the so called "group stage," it works like this. There's 32 competing teams. They're all drawn into eight groups of four. So, they play three games each. The two teams who perform the best, they advance to the next round. The other two teams go home. For the US, they have the hardest game first, against the Germans. There's an old English quote, that football is a simple game, 22 men kick a football for 90 minutes, and at the end, the Germans always win. The US weren't expected to win, but if they lost badly, it would have made the gains against Iran and Yugoslavia that bit harder.
Steve: I felt that it was very important for me to exude confidence and not to demonstrate any kind of fear whatsoever.
Roger: Inside, Steve, did you feel doubt? Tell me what you felt inside.
Steve: Privately, I said, "This is going to be a challenge. This is going to be difficult."
Reporter 1: Do we have a chance?
Steve: Oh, absolutely. This team is prepared and all the reports from France, the team is calm. They are ready and they are prepared to take on what most people consider to be the second-best team in the world.
Reporter 1: Let me do a little bookkeeping right now.
Roger: By the way, while Steve was grappling with self-doubt, so was ABC, because it too had made a bold decision, arguably, even bolder than the 3-6-1. The network would air the World Cup game live. It's daytime schedule.
Reporter 1: Some of you folks have turned on expecting to see General Hospital. Don't be despaired.
Roger: WTF. No GH. What's with that? Oh, Bobbie just confronted Luke about his betrayal. Laura's getting caught up in Brenda's murder. Plus, [unintelligible 00:13:40]'s been acting crazy.
Reporter 1: We've got our own soap opera about to unfold. It's the United States and Germany, coming up right now on ABC.
Roger: It's USA versus Germany in Paris, France. The final seconds before kickoff.
Commentator 1: The waiting is over.
Commentator 2: To be here, in the World Cup, USA against Germany in France, Parc stadium. This is what we've been dreaming about for decades, and we're underway.
Steve: Once the game starts, you forget about the cameras, you forget about the lights, you forget about the fans, and you just focus on the game. To be honest, I felt that we were managing the game, which was exactly what I wanted. Then there was a mistake on the corner.
Roger: In just the ninth minute an early German corner kick causes chaos and havoc across a jittery American back line, and midfielder Andreas Möller rose up to knock the ball goalwards. It somehow creeped past Mike Burns. The American defender had been positioned on the line for the sole purpose of repelling that very kind of attack. The worst possible start for Steve, and the US. Marcelo Balboa watched the goal impotently, passively from the sidelines.
Marcelo: You can scream and yell and try to be encouraging to your players, but it's not the same. You're pissed off because you're down one nothing.
Roger: The 9th minute ticked into the 15th. The US couldn't get a handhold on the game. It's the lineup, the formation, nothing was working. The 30th minute bled into the 35th Minute. The Americans still wholly outclassed. What did you see in the Germany game in that first half from your vantage point up high?
Tomas Rongen: A team that didn't belong in the World Cup, to be really honest with you.
Roger: Assistant coach Thomas Rongen. He'd been stationed in the team's box high up in the stadium to get a better view of the overall game.
Tomas: We had no answers because guys were put in positions to fail. As a coach, you got to put players in a position to succeed. Don't put a player with a particular skill set in a position where they've never really played. I think that Steve really never thought about that.
Eric: Claudio Reyna was supposed to be the closest to me, man. I couldn't see him. I don't know where he went.
Roger: A struggling Eric Wynalda.
Eric: I was on an island and I kept looking for help.
George Vesey: He was given that Dances with Wolves assignment of being out there at the front end of a hopeless formation by Steve Sampson. It's 3-6-1.
Roger: George Vecsey, New York Times columnist.
George: Meaning, "Everybody back, get the ball to Eric, see what he can do." What kind of offense is that? When you're by yourself, man, they can just-- Those are European players. They'll drop in on you.
Roger: How bad were you then?
Brian: We weren't ourselves. That's all.
Roger: At halftime, the US had the chance to try and regroup in their locker room.
Steve: I'll never admit to anybody that I was panicking.
Roger: Steve Sampson.
Steve: It was a legitimate, rational decision that we had to control the midfield of Germany. If anyone goes back and looks at that first 45 minutes, yes, they will see a Germany completely in control, but they are always playing in front of our defense. We're trying to prevent them from scoring against us. They never got behind us. They scored on a corner kick. Yes, for 45 minutes of my entire tenure as a national team coach, I played conservatively.
Roger: His team were one-nill down. In the second half, Steve Sampson had no choice. He had to mix things up, try and find some new energy.
Frankie: I feel like coaches get spur of the moment type of things, like they see something and they just go boom. It's like slow motion. It's like, Frankie.
Roger: With that, Hejduk was in.
Commentator 3: I see the intensity in Frankie's eyes. He's been dying to get into this game. Next, we have from California as we talked about earlier, who's- for a while couldn't make up his mind between soccer and surfing.
Commentator 4: Tremendous surfer.
Commentator 3: I believe he's worth the US Soccer Team right now.
Commentator 4: Möller, free kick.
Roger: Hejduk and I watched a video of his first moment on the field.
Frankie: That was me on probably 5 or 10 espressos. You can see my face, man. My eyes are ready to go. I'm in as much concentration mode as you can be in right there and I'm breathing in through my nose like a bald head. I literally remember, I got a ball played to me and I swept--
Roger: The German player, Jörg Heinrich, sees the opportunity, and took off with the ball.
Frankie: Literally goes blowing right by me. I just grabbed his foot. Could have probably been a red card. I ended up getting a yellow card.
Roger: You grabbed him by the foot.
Frankie: By the foot, just like a football player, American football. I'm like, "What the hell sport am I playing here?"
Roger: Still, the fearlessness Hejduk brought onto the field, it energized the entire American team. Seven minutes into his very first World Cup game he worked himself into an unbelievable possession right in front of Germany's net, and the ball, it found his way towards him.
Commentator 4: Hejduk coming down the middle now, they've got one over as well there, there's Frankie Hejduk. Already stored. You can see that the speed has done for the US lineup. Deering, Wynalda, going wide, Regis, header. Save.
Frankie hit [unintelligible 00:19:40] doorstep.
Commentator 3: What a great piece of play by a header. Watch this diving header here.
Roger: Hejduk flings himself at the ball streaming every sinew in his neck to flick it onwards towards goal. If he put it either side of the net, the game, it would have been tied. Instead, he headed it right out a relieved German goalkeeper who was able to slap the ball to safety, leaving press officer Jim Froslid reeling, knowing just how close the Americans had come.
Jim Froslid: It would have changed the whole dynamic of the game, because now you believe, "Hey, we just scored on the Germans. We've got confidence."
Roger: When that happens, as a team, what emotions do you draw from it? Do you think "Wow, our one chance," or are you like, "We can do this."
Frankie: It was more, "We got this, guys. Hey, that's 1:0 only. We're still on this game."
Roger: For a moment, it felt like they actually were, even the neutral French in the crowd got behind the Americans on laying every pass they made, but then that desperation for a goal, the US overcommitted, leaving themselves exposed at the back. In the 65th minute, German striker Oliver Bierhoff exploited this vulnerability, fluting a high lofted precise pass to his bleach blonde counterpart, Jürgen Klinsmann.
Commentator 4: Bierhoff looking for Klinsmann, settles 2:0.
Roger: Klinsmann proceeds to bamboozle the American Captain, Thomas Dooley, with his balletic control. The German caresses the ball ruthlessly into the single part of the net, where flailing goalkeeper, Kasey Keller, couldn't hope to reach it, to remarkable goal born of an elite combination of vision, ability, and clinical professionalism, the kind of goal that could never have been summoned by an American foot.
Commentator 4: It is a final. Germany, with a goal in the 9th minute and a goal in the 65th minute with a 2:0 victory over the United States.
Roger: Assistant Coach, Thomas Rongen.
Thomas Rongen: I don't even know how to describe it. I walked up the Champs Élysées with my head shaking, crying, and going like, "What just happened here?" We should have known, because I had a feeling leading up to it, that this is not going to be fun and easy, but you still think we can somehow pull it off regardless of all the things that the coaches, including me, didn't do right. Very early in a Germany game we were outclassed. It was 2:0, but it could have been 5. We're hanging in there, but we're not really hanging in there.
Roger: Steve Sampson, he didn't have time for a walk. He didn't even have time to cry. Instead, he had to pull himself together and head over to be grilled by ESPN sideline reporter Rob Stone.
Rob Stone: It's been a long time since you guys have been having to play come from behind football. How'd you guys think you fare?
Steve: I think the early goal hurt us quite a bit, put us on our heels a little bit, guys in the first half played a little more conservatively than we wanted to. We talked about it at halftime. We came out and we played aggressive, we played forward minor, we played to attack, and against the run of play we took a goal by Klinsmann. It was unfortunate.
Roger: Yet, the loss gave them bittered veterans, the opening they wanted, an opening to vent, and they went right to the media to point fingers. Alexi Lalas, he blamed the Chateau telling the Associated Press, "We were isolated in the middle of France, and then plopped down in the middle of Paris, where it's like a circus." Roy Wegerle lambasted the 3-6-1, "Twice the work and half the help." Eric Wynalda blamed the inexperienced starters, "You could tell some of us were playing for the first time in a World Cup," he told the LA Times.
Tab Ramos, he criticized Samson's decision to bench Lalas, Balboa and Agoos, the veterans, telling the Washington Post, "Obviously, you don't have to agree," and I don't.
Steve: It was shocking to me, and to this day it's shocking to me. We're only talking about three or four individuals, but I had no sense that they would have reacted that way.
Roger: After weeks of internal grumbling, sniping, and bad blood, the veteran players had embarrassed their media savvy manager in the sports pages.
Eric: He was going from the LA Times to the Washington Post to the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune. He's trying to read them all to find out, "Oh my gosh, this is not just one reporter." It was everywhere. The disease had spread.
Thomas: Steve was outraged and felt violated.
Roger: This is Thomas Rongen again, he and his fellow assistant coach Clive Charles, they got calls from Steve at 3:00 in the morning.
Thomas: Clive goes, "You know what? Send them home. That's the single, no problem."
Roger: You were in a predicament.
Steve: Yes. I would have sent Alexi and Tab home, and rightfully so, and I think they deserved to go home.
Roger: This is a radical, it's almost a nuclear option. It's once Samson tried to execute, only to be prevented from doing so by his bosses back at US Soccer when he asked for permission.
Steve: I think that would have been a statement to everybody across the United States that you can't behave that way and get away with it.
Roger: You were stuck with a mutiny, essentially. You convened a meeting?
Roger: You read the headlines out and you called out the players?
Steve: I did. I was so upset that I did call out those players in front of the entire team and I said, "How could you be so thoughtless?"
Eric: We were just so numb.
Roger: They may have been numb, but no one in the room would forget what came next.
Eric: I remember Roy Wegerle, he was one of these guys that didn't say a lot, but when he spoke, everybody listened, because he was that respected.
Roger: Roy Wegerle garnered that respect because he was a veteran of the elite English Premier League. There was not a single more experienced player on the American squad.
Eric: In this particular situation, he just matter of factly said, " Hey, Steve, let's face it. We're all in this for ourselves."
Roger: This is how assistant coach Thomas Rongen remembers what Wegerle said.
Thomas: I love my teammates, but really the main reason I'm here is to showcase myself. Yes, I want to play and, yes, I want to contribute, but I'm here for myself.
Roger: It was complete silence.
Thomas: Everybody's quiet. It was so convoluted and so unhealthy that that one sentence by Roy summed it really pretty much all up, and basically what the group said and Alexi said, "You know what, Steve? Because you're to blame," and that hurts. That hurt me. That was a tough blow, and we never recovered from that one.
Steve: That meeting is the time that I constantly think about. I don't know what I would have done differently, to be honest.
Roger: This might have been a team with problems, but a lot of World Cup teams have problems. This US squad still had two more games left to play, both of which had a reasonable chance of winning. All was not lost, but even Frankie Hejduk couldn't ignore the internal problems that were festering within the squad.
Frankie: That's where it all started, right there. I love all those dudes, but I will say they were drama kings, because even though we lost that first game against Germany, I still felt we had a great chance in the Cup. It's Germany, guys, we lost to fucking Germany. Sorry. A lot of teams lose to Germany. Next game.
Roger: This is American Fiasco. I'm Roger Bennett.
Announcer: American Fiasco is a production of WNYC studios. Our team includes Joel Meyer, Emily Botein, Paula Szuchman, Derek John, Starlee Kine, Kegan Zema, Ernie [unintelligible 00:28:04], Eliza Lambert, Jamison York, Daniel Guillemette, Matt Boynton, Jonathan Williamson, Brad Feldman, Bea Aldrich, Jeremy Blum, Isaac Jones, and Sarah Sandbach. Joe Plourde is our technical director, Hannis Brown composed our original music. Our theme music is by Big Red Machine, the collaboration between Aaron Dessner of the National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
Audio of this episode, courtesy of ABC Sports and AP. For more about this story, including a timeline and more, go to fiascopodcast.com.
Roger: It's Rog. Before you go, I want to ask you a favor. I know, I know, "You're doing me favors all the time," but this one, it's important. If you love American Fiasco, please tell your friends, because in this crazy, small world known as podcast, it's the only tried and true way to make a pod like this one get heard. Tell your friend who loves soccer, or your friend who's soccer curious and just about to fall in love with it during the World Cup, or your friend who just loves human disaster stories, tell them about American Fiasco, and I, Roger Bennett, will be in your debt. Again, courage.
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