Episode 10: Injury Time
What do you do after you’ve just crashed and burned in a World Cup?
That’s what the entire 1998 U.S. men’s national team was asking themselves, including the coach. The day after the team lost to Yugoslavia in its third and final World Cup game, Steve Sampson told the Washington Post that he wanted to remain head coach and that he wouldn’t let a few disgruntled players dictate his future. He even threatened to fine players who had aired their grievances in the press.
But Sampson was smart enough to know he was headed for the exit. His boss, U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg, asked Steve to meet him for breakfast in Paris first thing Monday.
Sampson remembers: “I offered my resignation because I felt it was the right thing to do because I had lost three games in a world championship. I didn't want Alan to feel as if he needed to fire me. Before he could get it out of his mouth, I offered to him to resign from the national team."
An autographed U.S. national team jersey from the 1998 World Cup.
Most of the players returned to the U.S., eager to forget the painful losses in France. But for Frankie Hejduk, the end of the World Cup marked a new beginning. He was actually kind of -- elated.
Amid all the drama swirling around the U.S. national team, Hejduk and his agent negotiated a contract to play with Bayer Leverkusen, a top-flight German team. This California surfer and reluctant soccer star was headed to the big time in Europe.
(Soccer Digest, November 1998)
“It's crazy how that works out, right?” Hejduk remarks to Roger Bennett in American Fiasco. “It ended up changing my life in probably the best way ever because I wouldn't be here with you, doing interviews, I wouldn't be fishing. I wouldn't be hitting golf balls off my back deck.”
Hejduk’s excitement, of course, was the exception. Most of the team returned to the U.S., eager to forget their humiliating defeat in France. More than anything, 1998 was supposed to be the year that this group of guys, playing this game, finally won over the great uncaring American audience to establish the game they loved as a truly major league sport.
Roger Bennett with former U.S. national team defender Marcelo Balboa at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver, home of the Colorado Rapids. Balboa spent most of his MLS career with the Rapids and is a coach with the team’s development academy.
“The boys had blown it. We had really lost of lot of respect from the world and internationally,” says striker Eric Wynalda. “Not until Brandi Chastain saved it in 1999, did we have a good feeling about the sport.”
That was the year Chastain won the World Cup for the U.S. women’s team in a dramatic penalty shootout. Soccer was once again breakfast table conversation, because Chastain and Mia Hamm were plastered all over Wheaties boxes.
It’s been 20 years since the men finished last at the World Cup. The petty grievances, the outsized vanities and the rank embarrassment have mostly faded away. Since then, soccer has arrived in the United States.
Dozens of leagues are broadcast on American television. EA Sports FIFA isn’t just a best-selling video game; it’s an educational tool that is introducing generations to the rules, teams and stars of the sport. International icons Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi regularly poll in Americans’ top ten favorite sports heroes, outranking their N.F.L., M.L.B. and N.B.A. counterparts. This past season, 72,000 fans packed a stadium in Atlanta and set a Major League Soccer attendance record. The two previous records were held by, wait for it, Atlanta.
And today, though Americans were embarrassed that the U.S. men failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup, worry not. The U.S. Women will — let’s pray — redeem us once again at the 2019 World Cup. After all, they’ve won three World Cups to date.
As for the men’s team, hope still burns in the hearts of American soccer evangelists and 1998 survivors like Hank Steinbrecher.
“We're Americans,” Steinbrecher tells Roger in the final moments of the podcast. “Let's climb Everest. Let's go to the moon. Let's cure cancer. Go for it. Let's win a World Cup.”