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Desperation Makes for a No-Win Situation

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 22, 1998; Page D1

 An Uncle Sam wannabe can hardly bare to watch as the United States is upset by Iran.(Robert Pratta/Reuters)
LYON, France —Every sign in the universal language of World Cup soccer was there to be read: Sunday night was going to be an extremely difficult night for the United States. Forget, if possible, the political overtones wrought by a game against Iran. The Americans had backed themselves into a corner so tight they could hardly turn around without hearing the hard truth — that their whole World Cup was to be boiled into one sizzling night of soccer. They needed a victory desperately. A tie would keep them limping along. A defeat would mean the end.

The signs pointed to trouble. The Americans had played poorly in their opening game against Germany. Iran had played well in a 1-0 defeat in its opener against Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia managed to tie powerful Germany earlier Sunday, Iran's first game looked even better. The Iranian players waited out the longest day of the year at their hotel in the nearby town of Bron. They were relaxed, mingling with their fans, giving interviews. The pressure couldn't get much heavier on a team than it was on the Americans. They never dreamed the World Cup could weigh so much.

They knew that ABC-TV was beaming the game and that their American viewing audience — never mind the rest of the planet — probably would never be as large for a long, long time. It seemed that playing the game would be a relief — that is, until they played it. That's when the signs really turned ominous.

The Americans dominated the first half. These were different Americans than those who lost 2-0 to Germany; there were five new starters, and no one looked timid as against Germany. They kept the ball in Iran's half of the field almost exclusively. But here came another sign — Brian McBride, one of the new starters, headed the ball only to have it bounce off the crossbar.

If that wasn't enough, Claudio Reyna, a staunch performer for two games, took a shot that hit the right post. The fate of the Americans was as obvious as Mount Rushmore. They outplayed Iran for all but a couple of minutes in the first 45, and where were they? Looking up at a mountain that seemed far too high to scale. Iran scored on one of its few chances, the result of a long-striding rush up the right sideline, a short drop pass, a return pass to the right corner, a cross to the center of the field, the ball hitting directly on the head of Hamid Estili and into the net. The Americans couldn't win when they were bad, against Germany, and now they couldn't win when they were good.

It was heartbreaking for American fans. It was not their night, it was not their World Cup. Yet the atmosphere would remain intense on this muggy night in the center of France, with 44,000 continuing to roar in the Stade Gerland. Almost everyone — Iranians of several factions, Americans, French — felt some emotion, evoked by a game that in reality was played between two teams far from the forefront in world soccer. How much more excruciating could it get than when defender David Regis came up to send a leaping left-footer off the left post. That made the count one crossbar and two posts. Consider an American football game lost by not once but three times having a field goal attempt hit the goal post.

This was heartbreak. But it was not quite the end. There still would be an exhausting emotional passage through complete resignation with a second goal by Iran, illogical hope for a reprieve when McBride scored in the 87th minute (Who but Americans invented the unbelievable comeback?) and the finality of it all when time ran out.

The World Cup ended for the United States Sunday night, even though a meaningless third game remains, as it seemed it would all along. But because of how it did — the three hits that might have been, several late surges created by the dynamic reserve Preki when Coach Steve Sampson finally bestowed him his first chance of the tournament in the 57th minute, the look of defeat and exhaustion and finality in the American players' faces — this was sad.

Soccer is an emotional game and in a very short time we've been through almost every emotion with this team — and, not incidentally, its coach. Disappointment if not anger that the team was not prepared for Germany. Sampson sent out too many rookies against the Germans. Then he changed so many players for this game, he signaled desperation. Yet for all the player shuffling and his changes in strategy, he left Eric Wynalda, the all-time leading scorer of the U.S. national team, on the bench Sunday night.

It's pretty obvious that Sampson and Wynalda had a falling out. But the best coaches somehow always find a way to make allowances. Vince Lombardi demanded everything his way, but it just so happened that the running back who could score five touchdowns on a Sunday afternoon liked things Lombardi's way. Lombardi not only made allowances for Paul Hornung, he came to love him and all but made him his son.

The Americans, who pushed through to the round of 16 in 1994, peaked in preparation for this World Cup sometime between 1995 and 1997. They beat Argentina, 3-0, in the 1995 Copa America and they won the 1995 U.S. Cup. Sampson, until then the interim coach, had the "interim" dropped by the U.S. Soccer Federation. He seemed to have the Americans ready to duplicate their 1994 World Cup performance. Last January, they beat Brazil, 1-0, in the Gold Cup in Los Angeles — although it was a Brazil without its best lineup. That was then. You know where we are now.

We're sad. Not because the Americans lost to a country at political odds with ours. Not even because the Americans lost to a country playing in only its second World Cup. We're sad because, in fact, American soccer has progressed over the years. This team was much better than the 1990 team that bowed out in Italy in three straight. This team, at least on paper, was better than the 1994 team that showed fine progress.

We're sad because this team wasn't prepared for France '98. The U.S. Soccer Federation should think more clearly now about how to prepare for 2002 and, so as not to be a world laughingstock, stop announcing ludicrous goals such as winning the World Cup in 2010.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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