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 The U.S. lost to Iran, 2-1, on June 21.
 On June 15, the U.S. lost to Germany, 2-0.
 Players concede U.S. still has a long way to go in soccer.
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Some U.S. Players Unhappy With Sampson

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 1998; Page C1

 U.S. players Frankie Hejduk (left) and Alexi Lalas (center) meet the media after practice Wednesday in Nantes. (Frank Perry/AFP)
NANTES, France, June 23 — Dissatisfaction with the strategy and decision-making employed by U.S. Coach Steve Sampson surfaced today in the U.S. soccer camp. The discontent may erupt after Thursday's World Cup match with Yugoslavia — the final match for the U.S. team, which lost its chance to advance to the round of 16 with two losses to open the tournament.

Some players plan to voice their displeasure about a variety of Sampson's decisions, which they believe contributed significantly to the U.S. team's poor showing in this World Cup.

"Everybody's ready to explode," veteran defender Alexi Lalas said today. "You can get ready for it."

Lalas did not play in either of the first two matches.

Sampson apparently shares some of his players' anger. A source said Sampson threatened to send home four players — Lalas, Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa and Ernie Stewart — before the Iran match for attitude problems. The threats, the source said, came through assistant coaches. None of those players started in the 2-1 loss Sunday. Stewart came into the game as a late substitute.

Sampson was not available to comment, according to team spokesman Jim Froslid.

The issues upsetting some players include:

  • Major lineup and formation changes in the last two months by Sampson, including a momentous shuffling last week before the loss to Iran.
  • The fielding of a largely inexperienced lineup in the team's 2-0 loss to Germany on June 15.
  • Sampson's decision last April to leave two-time World Cup veteran John Harkes off the roster, which some players viewed as symbolic of a perceived disregard by Sampson for the achievements of veteran players.
  • Sampson's criticism of players to reporters.

    Pockets of discontent arose after the team's loss to Germany June 15, a defeat that Lalas today called "humiliating and embarrassing ... an insulting performance to ourselves and all the players that have come before."

    The loss to Iran escalated some players' frustration. Five new players started that match and Sampson brought out a new formation.

    Some players, though, say the dissension may have begun with Sampson's decisions in April to cut Harkes and install a new formation and a new — and less experienced — group of players on the basis of one performance: the team's April 22 3-0 victory over Austria.

    Not all of the players were available for interviews today, an off-day for the team. Some players said they preferred to make public their concerns only after Thursday's match.

    Lalas, however, spoke about his complaints.

    "It's rather naive to think that a team that has gone through so much together can basically be rearranged and be expected to play with any consistency and cohesiveness," Lalas said. "It just doesn't happen, especially in soccer. ... The reality is, consistency comes from playing under a system for an extended period of time and understanding the role you play in that system.

    "If this was the master plan, good god, it was pretty masterful. [Sampson's] got a weird definition of a master plan."

    Sampson has said changing his approach drastically between the match against Germany, a three-time World Cup champion, and the match against Iran, a lesser opponent, was something he had in mind all along.

    The U.S. team qualified for the World Cup finals with room to spare last year. The national team posted a highly successful 1995 and good years in '96 and '97. Throughout, the U.S. team had phenomenal moments, such as the team's defeat of Brazil this February, offset by a handful of perplexing low points.

    Sampson took over the team as an interim coach in the spring of 1995 but didn't earn a contract to coach the team in the World Cup until last December. The contract expires after the World Cup. U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg said a decision on Sampson's future with the U.S. team will be made sometime in the month following Thursday's match.

    "The basic core of guys have been involved for many years; their spirit and personality have been on the field for many years," said Lalas, a member of the '94 World Cup team that advanced to the second round. "If you look at it from a soccer standpoint, that's been a team that's won and gotten quality and historic results. I don't know where that team was. ... I gave up trying to figure [Sampson] out a long time ago."

    Said another player who requested anonymity: "The reasons why we didn't play well were not because of this team. It has nothing to do with the ability of the players here. This team lost its chemistry months ago.

    "The reason we're upset is we got this guy his job. He talks about trust and sacrifice, and most of the time, we're still talking about 'we' and he's talking about 'I,' and he's taking credit for all the things we accomplished as a group in soccer. ... Everything we worked for, everything we accomplished, is thrown away not because of talent but because he wanted it to be his show."

    Asked whether Sampson, whose contract expires after the World Cup, should be asked back to coach the U.S. team, Lalas said: "It's not a decision any player is going to be involved with or should be involved with. We have a lot of work to do to make up the ground we lost with this performance."

    Said Tab Ramos, a three-time World Cup veteran who was among the five new starters in the Iran match: "Has he gotten the most out of the talent we have? That's really the kind of question the people in charge have to answer. Everybody's got a family. I don't want to be the one to say this guy should lose his job or this guy should have a job for the next four years.

    "I think a lot of people have a lot of things to say once this is over. I think I'll be one of those guys. ... Now is not a very good time. There's really no need to get into any bigger of a problem than we have now."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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