[U.S. SOCCER] Like the decision itself 12 years ago, former U.S. head coach Steve Sampson did not regard lightly his choice to publicly acknowledge his reasons for dropping midfielder and captain John Harkes from the American squad just three months prior to the 1998 World Cup.
Informed by U.S. attacker Roy Wegerle that Harkes and teammate Eric Wynalda's wife, Amy, were having an affair, Sampson discussed the issue privately with both players and consulted staff members and U.S. Soccer executives before making his decision to cut Harkes from the team.
Sampson did not publicly disclose knowledge of the affair, and came forth in a telephone interview Tuesday only because Wynalda had acknowledged it Monday night on a weekly TV show he co-hosts on Fox Soccer Channel.
"I wish that Eric had never said anything," said Sampson, who took over the national team in 1995 and led it to some historic victories before taking severe criticism for his tactical and personnel decisions at the 1998 competition in which the USA lost all three of its games.
"But you know what? The other side of it, is now, I'm not the only one that is aware of the reality. So for 12 years now I have kept this quiet, never dreaming that either one of them would ever make it public. But it's on the record now, so I feel I have the freedom to speak.
"I did not even tell the team. I felt it was a private matter, a private issue. I could not tell my own team, because of the potential impact it would have on those two families. My own team did not know the full story. So going into the World Cup, I made that decision about John. Certainly there were rumors and they were able to handle their own side of the story, but I never formally addressed it to the team.
"If I regret one thing, it's probably that I didn't confide in the leadership of the team as to exactly what had transpired and why I made the decision. I felt that this was such a private issue that I couldn't take it to the leadership of the team."
Problems had been simmering between Harkes and Sampson before the coach learned of the affair and despite some impressive results under Sampson: the USA beat Argentina and Mexico at the 1995 Copa America in Uruguay en route to a fourth-place finish, and battled Mexico to a 0-0 tie in Azteca Stadium - the only time it has not lost in that venue -- in November, 1997, despite losing defender Jeff Agoos to a red card in the opening minutes. Harkes took over at left back and led a courageous performance that stunned the huge Mexican crowd and eventually led to the dismissal of Coach Bora Milutinovic, who had preceded Sampson as the U.S. coach.
"I was a huge fan of John Harkes and to this day, on the field, he was one of the best captains the U.S. has ever had," says Sampson. "To say I was disappointed is an understatement."
After the USA had clinched qualification for the World Cup, Harkes objected to playing left back in a friendly against the Netherlands in February, 1998, and the two were seen arguing on the field after a training session. After a 2-0 defeat, the team headed to Brussels for a friendly against Belgium; two days before the game, Harkes and several players went out to celebrate teammate Joe-Max Moore's birthday, and came back to the team hotel in the wee hours very noisily drunk.
"I believe the first two instances we could have overcome and put them behind us, and John could have been the captain for us at the World Cup," says Sampson. "Unfortunately, what happened didn't help our performance, but I just couldn't justify the action.
"It's a matter of principle, not a matter of one's moral beliefs. You either stand behind your principles, or you don't, and I chose to stand behind this one."
After the Belgium match, and prior to a friendly against Paraguay in mid-March, Wegerle - who had played against and socialized with Harkes when they were playing club opponents in England -- informed Sampson he knew of the affair. Both Wynalda and Harkes refused to speak about the matter publicly, other than to deny the affair's existence. Harkes also denied it to Sampson, who nevertheless confirmed Wegerle's information and took several weeks to make his decision.
"I informed the team prior to the match against Paraguay in San Diego," says Sampson. "I addressed the team and told them that for a number of reasons, I'd decided to remove John from the team without being specific. You've got to understand how difficult that was. I didn't want this to impact Eric's ability to perform at his very best in the World Cup, but it did, and it was a huge distraction."
Three weeks later, on April 14, 1998, Sampson publicly confirmed rumors that had been circulating of Harkes' dismissal. Yet in making the announcement Sampson referred only to "leadership issues" and disputes regarding Harkes' role in the team. The following month, Harkes flew to Southern California to plead with Sampson for reinstatement, a very public embarrassment that may have further split apart the players, many of whom held their former captain in very high regard.
As does Sampson, at least as a player and a leader. "There were a number of [players] who were disappointed that John was not a member of the team," he says. "I don't even know today if they would have supported the decision I made if they had known. There were players who were very loyal to John, and rightfully so. John had paid his dues, he deserved to be there, he deserved to be on the national team, and I believe he deserved to be the captain.
"I would have loved to have gone to that World Cup with John Harkes; he would have made a difference on the field. But after this series of acts, one being incredibly severe, I didn't believe he still had the right to be there. It's really unfortunate.
"What people have to remember is the quality of play that team showed during those four years. There were some really exceptional displays that were overlooked because of our results in the World Cup. It demonstrated an incredible amount of growth and maturity in the U.S. team. For that, I was really proud, and continue to be really proud."