Other Temporary Assignments

Dumpster diving in Google trying to corroborate my memories of the 1998 World Cup, I came across this post from this very site:

uclacarlos, visionary. Although he was a couple of years off - it only took a little over two years.

Mark Ziegler with a great article here. Makes up for saying a lockout by MLS owners was likely.

Let's also recall Harkes' play at the end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998, which was absolutely godawful for club and country.

Many of our younger readers are saying to themselves, "What's the big deal about a bunch of guys who were terrible in MLS?" Completely valid question, whippersnapperariat. 1998 is as far away to you as the demise of the Cosmos was to us back then.

But 1998 was such a turning point in American soccer history, because it was the first real setback the program had suffered since the end of the NASL. It was a series of shock, fear, disillusionment, and ultimate defeat. Bruce Arena got into the Hall of Fame just by fielding a team after all that.

In the 90's, the US was our club team. We didn't have the divided loyalties that we have today, where no one cheers for both Landon Donovan AND Brian Ching EVERY game. International fans have had to reconcile divided club and national passions from before birth, but U.S. Americans didn't have to. They were our boys. That was our team, every one of them. Having to follow them through tiny little wire service reports made the devotion even greater. More fans would come later, and I'm the last guy to say it isn't better today. But there were no casual fans back then, and there were no other teams to cheer for. From 1990 to 1995 or so, the flame burned hotter for being pure.

Then, MLS came along, and with familiarity came contempt. It didn't help that "mildly disappointing" was the absolute highest level any prominent US national team member managed to achieve in MLS for several seasons.

It wasn't like they were saving their good performances for qualifiers, either. What would have happened this cycle if in a must-win game, the first and only goal came in the final five minutes? How many fans would call that game the greatest moment of their soccer-watching lives? Well, for a long time, Portland in September 1997 held that prize. There was a fan section! We won! It was a sellout! Soccer was here to stay, and Portland was destined to get an MLS team!

The US followed up that performance - remember, this was the high point in qualifying in the history of the team, as far as anyone knew - by bumbling and stumbling home and away against Jamaica, getting a miraculous 0-0 point in Mexico, and basically being so very inspiring that Alan Rothenberg kept Sampson waiting until that December before confirming that he would, in fact, remain the coach.

Sampson celebrated that announcement by losing the Gold Cup final and trying to convert Eric Wynalda into a midfielder...in favor of Roy Wegerle, hero of the Canada game that sealed qualification.

As every schoolchild knows, Eric Wynalda would eventually become the 1 in the 3-6-1, a role he performed so well he was benched. The late Mike Penner wrote the definitive report on what happened against Germany, and Penner took no prisoners.

I think this helps solves the mystery of why, given what we think we know now, Wynalda took Harkes' side over Sampson's at the time. Wynalda may or may not have believed what he had been told about Harkes and his wife, but he definitely knew he was being benched and repositioned.

This Amy Shipley article is only available for free in a snippet - thanks, Washington Post - but I think the snippet captured the flavor of how Sampson and Wynalda were getting along:

There's probably never a good time to hear about your relationship or marriage from an outside party, but hearing from your dickhead boss...yeah, it's easy to see why Eric might have chosen to believe his wife and his best friend over Steve Sampson.

Still, it's very hard to reconcile what was said at the time with what's being said now.

Sampson told Ziegler that it was all about the off-field issues:

But...that's not what I remember. Something about embracing the left back. If only there were some way to compare what Steve and John said at the time - oh, thank you, Soccer America:

Oh, and he was dropped as DC United's captain around the same time, which I had forgotten.

So, I didn't just dream that part of this was the fact that Harkes wasn't playing well. Unless I also dreamed that Jeff Rusnak article:

It was and will remain a controversial decision, but to pretend years later that on-field performance had nothing to do with it helps nobody.

Unless the theory is that the punishment for adultery is a change of position.

Allow me to advance the theory that Sampson has belatedly hopped on the pro-Harkes bandwagon for the same reason his former players did after the World Cup - sheer self-serving revisionism. Penner - again - distilled some of the best anti-Sampson rants at the time, but key and consistent message is that, like John Rambo, they weren't allowed to win because of faulty leadership. If only Harkes had been there, they cry. If only they had been coached better.

Not, if only they had been younger, better players.

Sampson is doing the same thing. Without Harkes, we're now told, what other option did we have but to start six midfielders? What else could be done, besides start Mike Burns against Germany, then Moore and Ramos against Iran as d-mids? If only Harkes and his leadership had been there. But, there are certain lines one can't cross.

I'm just one fan, of course. But I'm just one fan who had to watch the US-Iran game in the one god-damned bar in Santa Monica crammed with Persian supporters. The line has to be a lot closer to Polanski territory to justify losing to god-damned Iran. If winning World Cup games means keeping a discreet but steady supply of small, cute furry animals available to the team hotel, then PETA be damned.

Besides, if the idea was to drop Harkes because he was hurting team chemistry, and dropping Harkes obliterated team chemistry, then exactly what was the point?

Only Harkes has been entirely consistent, denying then and denying now. (That may change later this week, but if it does, it will probably cost Harkes his World Cup commenting gig, so I'm thinking John's going to stick to his story.) He and Amy are the only people who really know for sure. (Roy Wegerle might, but I refuse to speculate on the manner in which he obtained his certain knowledge of the affair on the grounds that I just ate.)

No one to my knowledge has asked the former Mrs. Wynalda about it on the record, but...well, okay, here's what Wynalda said about Harkes after the disaster in France:

(Boy, thank God soccertimes.com's archives are indestructible.)

Meanwhile, George Vecsey of the New York Times described Harkes and Wynalda as "best buddies."

It was on the strength of such public statements that I and other overly trusting souls chalked up the adultery rumors to malice.

Instead, we should have chalked them up to irrelevance.

By early 1998, the peak years of the US "club" were done. The best players were old or injured, frequently both. By cruel fate, the next generation were either too young or not good enough, frequently both. I defy any of you by hindsight to construct a team that would have made it to the second round that year against Germany and Yugoslavia. (Yeah, they probably should have beaten Iran.)

Steve Sampson had infamously tried open auditions to replace nearly every prominent member of the team. David Wagner and Michael Mason failed quickly, Brian Maisonneuve and Chad Deering didn't fail quickly enough, Frankie Hejduk and Brian McBride wouldn't fail until long after Sampson was gone. The 3-6-1 was borne out of desperate madness, but the key word is desperate. There were simply too many holes.

Those who do not learn from the past are blah blah yadda yadda oatcakes, fine - but 1998 will not be the last time the talent ages faster than it can be replaced. (It arguably happened in 2006, too, but that team refused to self-servingly pile on the coach.) The key is to minimize the damage when this does happen.

And it might happen this year, too. If it does, I'd much rather read about how steps were taken to expand and deepen the talent pool, rather than how we'll police the romantic lives of adults.

Apparently a slimeball called John Terry figures tangentially in this story, and a debate is raging over whether he should be dropped. Of course he should. Preferably from an airplane, or the side of a very tall building.