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Too Many Moves Leaves U.S. Standing Still

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, June 26, 1998; Page D1

NANTES, France — We take you directly to the "zone mixte" — you guessed it, the mixed zone — where the media get to mix it up with coaches and players immediately after a World Cup game. The reason we're starting in the mixed zone instead of the kickoff of Thursday night's United States-Yugoslavia game is because more action took place in the mixed zone.

As uneventful as the Americans' farewell defeat of 1-0 was, it remains unconfirmed that a Yugoslavian midfielder was seen working a crossword puzzle while the U.S. was trying to score out of the soon-to-be-former coach Steve Sampson's latest concoction of a lineup.

Consider the players on the bench when the game started: Alexi Lalas, Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos, Predag Radosavljevic (Preki), Eric Wynalda and Roy Wegerle. Goaltender Kasey Keller was given the night off so that Brad Friedel could get playing time in a meaningless game, and defender Eddie Pope had back spasms. Veteran John Harkes, of course, never caught the plane, having been red-carded by Sampson in a highly controversial cut. Whether it was the right or wrong move, Sampson bungled it by ripping Harkes in public. Sampson effectively lost the attention of several team members with the Harkes incident.

Sampson, first up in the mixed zone, put a spin on the ball like Pele used to. "Yugoslavia is an exceptional team that will go very far in this World Cup," Sampson said. I should add this warning: Don't bet the last soccer ball in the house on that.

Next, Sampson declared: "I think we also proved that we can play very good soccer against very good teams. Our one failure, of course, has been, over the three games, our inability to put the ball in the net, and this lack of precision in front of the goal is something we must improve upon as a national team if we expect to get any kind of results in the future."

Get me back to Paris.

It is extraordinarily difficult to advance without scoring, even in the World Cup, where scoreless ties sometimes can be good presents. It would be in a team's best interest to arrive at the World Cup with a coach who has some notion of how to get more than one goal in three games out of his team. Sampson led the United States to an 0-3 record in France '98 with a total of a single goal. He accomplished this with three lineups and two formations.

The consensus among the American media, the American fans I've encountered and one French cafe proprietor is that Sampson ought to be on the first flight out of here. Instead, he's planning to hold one more news conference Friday. Fittingly, many of the players will be long gone and free of him — on aptly named Air Liberty.

The mixed zone next dissolved into groups of reporters hanging over a railing that separated them from the players, several of whom already had gone on record as saying that Sampson had ruined the whole World Cup experience. The players were given chances for an encore, which several took. But none put the knife in any less delicately than Lalas, who said of Sampson: "After this is done and we're all old we're going to have a scrapbook and hopefully the most important thing is the respect of the people you associated yourself with. I'm comfortable regardless of whether I played a minute or not that I have the respect of my fellow players and the people I associated with myself because I was honest and up front. Steve's got to settle for a scrapbook."

Moments after that a bell gonged, which sounded like the end of a round in a prize fight but actually meant the "zone mixte" was over. Except, that is, for American journalists who wished to stay to be addressed by U.S. Soccer Federation potentates. Alan Rothenberg, president, led off. He cited "a great deal of progress," adding, "We've come a long way." Believe it or not, he was talking about the improvement in U.S. World Cup play this year as opposed to the past, not the travel miles we've all logged.

Actually, Rothenberg had part of it right. The U.S. certainly had enough talent on this team to do better than 0-3 with one goal. But with every game came a new disappointment. Sampson said that he will remember the first half of the first game with Germany, and how that "woke up" his team. I say, how come he didn't wake them up before they took the field? The most disheartening aspect of the 2-0 loss to Germany was that the Americans showed no sign of life.

Against Iran, the Americans were awake. But in sports, you always have to allow for bad luck, and here it came. Three times they scraped paint off the posts with their shots and lost, 2-1. But dissension had set in before that game, and then got worse. Finally, Thursday night produced the game of dread. Few anticipated it with any joy. Pregame questions included: By how much would Yugoslavia win? Would all the American players show up? Would Sampson last out the evening as coach?

The long and short of the U.S.'s disastrous 1998 World Cup is that the U.S. federation picked the wrong coach. As recently as April, Sampson fell in love with a new formation and, like that, defenders Lalas and Balboa were out of jobs. But in three recent exhibitions, the U.S. failed to score in two of the games. It was becoming clear that this team was going to have trouble scoring, even though Sampson said as recently as May 30 when the U.S. and Scotland played a 0-0 snoozer at RFK that he wasn't worried about the lack of scoring because the team was "creating" scoring opportunities. They still were against Iran.

The American players at the World Cup level need a coach with a good deal of international experience to direct them. They deserve it. These players worked a long time to get this far only to lack a coach with the capacity to mold a true team and bring out of each individual what he has to offer the group in the biggest sporting event of their lives. A player has to believe in a coach.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, writing in his book "Giant Steps," caught the essence of coaching when he described how confident he and his UCLA basketball teammates were under John Wooden. As Abdul-Jabbar explained, when Wooden would call timeout near the end of a tight game, the players gathered around him with an unswerving belief that he would see them through their tough time. "We put ourselves in his hands," Abdul-Jabbar wrote, "and he taught us then and there how to win."

The next U.S. World Cup soccer team deserves such a coach.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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