Steve Sampson: 'I don't use lack of luck as an excuse'
SOCCER AMERICA: There was no MLS when you took the helm in 1995. How did that league's arrival affect your task?
STEVE SAMPSON: You can't just point to MLS. You have to look much more globally. If MLS had begun in 1995 instead of 1996, I think we would have been ahead of the game because it would have given the league one more year to get settled from a continuity standpoint within each team and give the league and the individual coaches at least one more year to sort through all of their concerns.
But 1996, in very critical time for the U.S. national team, we had the vast majority of our players playing under new coaches, under new systems of play into which we introduced a lot of young American players who had had very little, if any, professional experience.
The level of play, especially in 1996, had an impact on the quality of the national team's play. Combined with that, you had a number of players coming off injuries or playing injured, because since 1994 through the first year of MLS, very few of our top players got any significant rest. They had to leave Europe or Mexico and come directly to MLS. That took its toll on the individual form of certain players. And it took its toll overall on the quality of play of the national team.
Would I have wanted to delay the inception of MLS? Absolutely not, even at the risk of impacting the national team. The most important thing is a top-flight professional league that will eventually pay dividends for the U.S. national team. Even at the risk of a mediocre level of play at its inception, that was a risk worth taking for the benefit of the future.
I accept that [but] people have to understand that it did have an impact. I think the quality of MLS play has slowly progressed and improved. But it's still not to the point where we can compete with the elite countries of the world. Eventually we will have that. But in the last two years, no one can tell me that the quality of play in MLS prepared us well to play with players who were playing in the Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliga or the English Premiership.
SA: So do you regret taking players who were coming off of injuries or who weren't in good form?
SS: The reality is I had a choice of completely renovating a team in January and bringing in much younger players, or to go with veteran players. I opted for a mix.
Eric Wynalda was not 100 percent. You can't say his preparation prior to the World Cup was ideal, because of injuries. Tab Ramos was not ideal and he probably entered the World Cup 80-85 percent of what he can be.
Joe-Max Moore, in 1997 and the early part of 1998, was not 100 percent fit.
Dooley didn't participate in the Gold Cup, because of calf injuries.
I do feel that the competition in the league our players are playing in combined with injuries did not make for ideal preparation for a World Cup.
Experienced players were preferred
SA: But you took all those players ...
SS: Taking them was the right thing to do. Even though I feel an Eddie Pope and a David Regis deserve to start against Alexi Lalas, who other than Alexi Lalas should have been taken in his place? And that's the question we have to ask ourselves. Who instead of Jeff Agoos?
I preferred experienced players, even though they might not have been absolutely on top of their game, over inexperienced with very little feel for the international game.
SA: Both you and some players cited the scoring opportunities created, and the poor luck in not having scored. But is not scoring bad luck, or does it mean the team's not good enough?
SS: I don't use lack of luck as an excuse. One creates his own luck. But I think one of the areas we need to improve upon is the creation of players who have great poise in front of the goal under pressure.
We have to do a better job of putting the ball in the back of the net when we're given the opportunities. Are we good enough to do that? Absolutely.
Maybe you give Brian McBride or Claudio Reyna or Roy Wegerle another opportunity for the same chances, and they finish. On that given day they didn't. In that instance, we weren't good enough. But the lesson to be learned is we have to continue to look for very best athletes in our identification process so we can compete with the elite in world.
If those shots go two inches lower than the crossbar or two inches inside the post, they're looked upon as heroes and everything changes dramatically in the matter of perception.
SA: Back to some player selections. Roy Wegerle was not playing well in MLS, why did he start against Iran?
SS: He started because in previous U.S. games he was the best at being able to hold the ball with his back to the goal. Furthermore, he was one of our most consistent goalscorers.
He scored two goals against Canada in our second-to-last match in qualifying. He scored against Sweden. He created a number of chances that went either off the post or crossbar in other matches leading up to the World Cup.
He was in much better form offensively than anyone of the other forwards.
I had felt that having a combination of a player who was very good with his back to the goal with the work rate of Brian McBride, who is very good at running off the ball and very dominant in the air, would be good.
SA: Tom Dooley's overall France '98 performance?
SS: His overall performance was very good, but I think he would admit it was unfortunate what happened with the goal from Juergen Klinsmann and it was unfortunate in the game against Yugoslavia that the man whom he was marking eventually scored.
SA: Did we not see more of Marcelo Balboa because Dooley was in his place?
SS: Marcelo Balboa took off the entire month of December, and probably because he felt he needed it, and I don't disagree with that. He had played three and a half years in a row without a rest.
The length of time he took off impacted his ability for a good showing in January and February. He wasn't sharp. He was not 100 percent fit.
I feel that also one thing that impacted his overall performance - and understandably so - was his preoccupation with his wife and her pregnancy and that he was going to be a father and wanted to be a part of that experience with her. I understand that, but the combination of not being sharp and being preoccupied impacted his performance.
Not to the extent of not including him on the 22, but it was an issue of seeing starting time. I felt he deserved to be on the team and over time he would regain his form and I would have no hesitation of playing him if in fact someone got injured, either as marking back or sweeper.
The instant Dooley pulled up lame with a calf injury I put Marcelo Balboa in to replace him [with eight minutes left vs. Yugoslavia]. If we had made it to the second round, Marcelo could have been starting at sweeper with Dooley injured on the bench.
As a side note, I think Marcelo - given his experience and that he could have easily seen more playing time - behaved truly professional and deserves a lot of credit because he serves as an example to the rest of the team and a lot of the young players in this country.
SA: Claudio Reyna's overall performance?
SS: I think it is very difficult to put so much weight on one individual's shoulders. Maybe the expectations were too high for Claudio in the Germany game, and you have to give Jens Jeremies credit for closing him down.
You also have to cite the poor response of the players around him ... who needed to work harder to take pressure off Claudio. In the second half he and the players around him did a much better job.
In the Iran and Yugoslavia match Claudio raised his level, because the adjustment we made to bring him deeper to see the ball as opposed to higher where someone can mark him tighter.
We needed to enable him to receive the ball and face the goal so he could playmake with less pressure on him. That was one of the reasons we put Joe-Max Moore on the field - because he could place-change with him and play an attacking midfield role when Claudio came back deep.
We as a soccer-playing nation expected too much from Claudio Reyna and needed to provide him with much greater assistance.
SA: What does he need to do to put his stamp on games more consistently?
SS: He is still young . If anything, I think he can have a much greater physical presence in the game. From a technical standpoint, few if any are his equal in the U.S.
SA: Let's address some of the criticism aimed at you. Your lack of international experience was thrown out as a factor in the World Cup failure ...
SS: How much more international experience do people want me to get? Two years as U.S. assistant coach, three years as head coach with the best coaching record of all U.S. national team coaches.
There was never an issue of experience when we reached the semifinal of the Copa America, nor when we won the U.S. Cup, nor when we qualified, nor when we beat Brazil.
There was only an issue of experience when things didn't go exactly right during the World Cup, and that was only expressed by a very small minority of individuals, and those individuals were bitter because they weren't seeing playing time.
SA: There were comments, in the press and from a player, that you were overcoaching. When you became the U.S. coach, you had been praised ''for letting the players express themselves'' ....
SS: I'm not going to challenge those comments because all of us change. It was much easier for me to let players play and be less hands-on when they were in top form. As players fell out of form, as players started playing in an environment that was less competitive, as players incurred injuries, what I had to do was compensate from an organizational standpoint.
This was perceived as Steve changing. It was not Steve changing. It was Steve adjusting to his environment. My environment and team's environment changed dramatically between January of 1996 and November of 1997, and it all relates to players not being in top form and players being injured.
SA: Could the players' outrage be attributed to knowing their standing within the team?
SS: Every single player met with me individually when I told them they were making the World Cup squad. Every single player was told what their role was going to be....
I am baffled with Tab Ramos' response. Here's player coming off knee surgery, with less than optimal preparation, making statements that he'll play any role that Steve wants, no matter what position, coming off the bench. Then if he doesn't start, or play the position he wants, he's frustrated and he voices those frustrations publicly.
I just don't understand that.
I think Alexi Lalas understood his role, but did not want to accept it, and made that very clear.
Image of U.S. Soccer tainted
SA: You seemed to me very concerned with what was in the papers. You postponed a practice to discuss what was in the media. Were you too concerned with the media?
SS: How can anyone be too concerned? The reason is: I don't think many of our players understood the level of exposure this team was getting back in U.S. and that their negative comments were being read by millions of people. I felt the image of U.S. Soccer, the image of the national team, was tainted by these comments.
Furthermore, I felt the comments being made affected team chemistry between veteran and younger players. Some comments regarding accommodations was a direct slap in the face to the enormous amount of work that the staff went through to provide the best training environment.
It was unprofessional to voice those opinions publicly. It didn't take into account the millions of people who supported this team and wanted something very positive to come out of this World Cup. It was sending the wrong messages, when those concerns could have been dealt with internally. To postpone a training session was more than worthwhile.
Steve Sampson does not have an obsession with media. It's a tool I use to learn about my opponents. Maybe the perception is I'm reading too many articles, but I learn an awful lot by what I read and it is my obligation to be informed and up-to-date about my opposition.
But I am concerned about comments from my own team and how it affects the image of the U.S. national team. Anyone who isn't concerned is short-sighted, and concerned only about themselves.
SA: What are your plans for the future?
SS: I am going to take the next 30 to 60 days to evaluate all the various opportunities. Coaching will always be my passion, regardless of what position I take in the near future, and I will hold on to the dream of once again coaching this U.S. national team, because as much as I have accomplished, I feel I have unfinished business.
by Soccer America Senior Editor Mike Woitalla
(continued . . .)
This is part 2 of 3