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U.S. Loses to Iran, 2-1, Fades From World's View

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 1998; Page D1

American Cobi Jones goes for a header in a 2-1 loss to Iran.
American Cobi Jones (left) goes for a header in a 2-1 loss to Iran.
LYON, France, June 21 — Sweat streaming down his neck, U.S. forward Brian McBride stared into the spotlit night as he trotted over the Stade Gerland turf. Near the Iranian goal, he crossed himself with a firm hand and pressed his palms together near his heart.

McBride's gesture, in the waning minutes of tonight's long-awaited World Cup match against Iran, was not intended to be a religious statement. The brief prayer was considered an act of necessity.

The United States needed more help than it found on the field in its 2-1 loss to Iran, a crushing defeat because of the late-developing tournament implications — not the political ones. Germany's 2-2 tie with Yugoslavia earlier in the day meant the loser of this match could not advance to the second round.

When time expired, unleashing whistles and celebrations from the mostly Iranian supporters in the crowd of 44,000, U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna bent at the waist and, after removing his shin guards, hung down with his arms extended, like a towel draped over a chair. After a minute, he dropped dismally to the grass.

While his teammates offered handshakes and exchanged jerseys with Iranian players in the spirit of sportsmanship, Reyna looked over at them and kept walking. He headed to the U.S. bench, where he sat down and covered his face with his hands.

"It wasn't disrespect or anything," Reyna said later. "I was just so disappointed and so sad."

For the United States, its last first-round match — Thursday against Yugoslavia in Nantes — will be a battle for nothing but pride. That's a strange thing considering the U.S. team overpowered the Iranians in every aspect tonight — except in goals scored.

"Technically, they were over us," Iranian Coach Jalal Talebi said. "They dominated the game most of the time. ... We were so excited and of course there was a lot of pressure on the shoulders of our players. It was a little bit difficult to get our nerve and play as serious as we can."

U.S. Coach Steve Sampson unveiled five new starters in a new two-forward formation. The changes produced about everything intended except the victory. Reyna, McBride and David Regis each slammed breathtaking shots off the posts, and the United States produced more than a dozen chances against a disorganized Iranian team.

McBride's header in the 88th minute finally broke the plane of the goal.

"It's like the post had a magnet on it and the ball was magnetized," McBride said. "Everybody was pushing and pushing, we just couldn't get that last goal."

Despite the quality of the U.S. team's performance, the likelihood of Sampson continuing as national team coach after the World Cup diminished somewhat. Though Sampson's team fought from beginning to end, the bottom line is this: The United States was expected to defeat Iran, which was playing in its first World Cup finals in 20 years.

If the multitude of changes Sampson made tonight suggested panic, Sampson insisted after the match that it wasn't so. He said he did not abandon the approach employed in the team's 2-0 loss to Germany last Monday; rather, he explained, he brought out an appropriate strategy.

In this match, he started a more experienced and offensive-minded lineup that included World Cup veterans Roy Wegerle, Joe-Max Moore and Tab Ramos, as well as relative youngsters Frankie Hejduk and McBride. Benched were Mike Burns, Eric Wynalda, Ernie Stewart, Chad Deering and Brian Maisonneuve. Sampson explained the overhaul by saying, "Iran is Iran and Germany is Germany. We played tactically the way we needed to play against Germany. ... I couldn't have done anything better tonight."

As Sampson spoke, a continuous drumbeat and chanting from Iranian fans resonated in the background.

Clearly angry about his absence from the lineup, Wynalda declined interviews except with one television station and slammed a door as he left the interview room. Sampson said he bypassed the U.S. national team's all-time leading goal-scorer with his final substitution — calling on midfielder Maisonneuve in the 82nd minute instead of Wynalda — because Maisonneuve could hold the ball and shoot for distance.

Iran's first goal, on a header by Hamid Estili in the 40th minute, resulted from a defensive breakdown, partly because of the fact the United States had Iran's best three players covered. The less-regarded Estili, however, got free. The second goal, in the 84th minute by Mehdi Mahdavikia, came on a breakaway with the United States pushing to score the tying goal.

The United States so dominated the first half that the players looked as if they had been punched in the stomach after Estili's goal. But after halftime, they seemed to have recovered and played at a frenzied pace late in the match.

"It was weird," McBride said. "They just kept dropping back ... We knew anything could happen. We knew it would be up for grabs."

It was up for grabs, but the U.S. team left the field with little more than a few Iranian players' jerseys and the roses presented by their opponents before the match.

"It just seemed like it wasn't to be," Wegerle said. "I really thought we would put in a better showing than we did, but that's what the World Cup is all about. It's about disappointment and victory."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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