Part 1 of 3
SOCCER AMERICA: Does the fact you resigned mean you're taking responsibility for the U.S. failure at France '98?
STEVE SAMPSON: I'm taking my share of the responsibility.... People probably won't believe me when I say this, but even before the World Cup I had discussions with my family and said that it would be very difficult for me to carry on after the World Cup because of the amount of time I have spent away from them since 1991.
Also, my resignation represented a statement and a message that it was time to let someone else take the reins of the national team, and that I felt that I had done as much as I could in this cycle. And that maybe someone else could improve upon what I've done.
The timing was right for me to resign, no matter what the results were during the World Cup.
SA: If we look at the events surrounding the World Cup chronologically, we have to address the dismissal of John Harkes, again. Had this issue been settled by the time the tournament began?
SS: I think there were two or three individuals who were still very upset that John was not a part of the team, and they did not understand or accept the reasoning behind his removal.
SA: And your feelings, now, about the decision are ...
SS: That I would make the same decision today. That I do not regret the decision. That I think it was the right decision.
SA: Can you explain again how you came to make the decision?
SS: It was a deterioration of trust between myself and John. I called into question his off-the-field leadership, and it was a series of events, whether it was missed plane flights or the last one in for meetings, or staying up till all hours of the evening drinking. These were all issues that forced me to make a decision that this was not the type of leadership that we needed going into a World Cup.
On top of that there were issues about John's unwillingness to play a different role on the team - a role that I wanted him to play. Even though he stated publicly after I had decided not to take him to France, that he would be willing to play any role whatsoever, that was not the case in my private discussions with him.
He was adamant about playing a significant role in midfield and was unwilling to play as an outside back.
SA: Much of the talk before, during and after the World Cup had to do with the 3-6-1. How important was that system? It was brought up often and you discussed it much yourself...
SS: No, I did not discuss it. I responded to questions by the media. It was never my intention for the focus of this team to be on the system that it was playing.
I think it was overplayed in the media because of success in Austria [a 3-0 win]. It was not as dramatic a change as the media was making it out to be. Because of the victory over Austria, people were looking for reasons as to why there was so much success in that game. A lot of media felt that it was because of the dramatic change in the system of play.
The 3-6-1 came about because of our play in the Gold Cup, our play against Holland, Belgium and Paraguay. I believed that in a 4-4-2, in a zonal system, we were exposed in the back, that we did not have enough pace in enough positions in our defenders to compete effectively against Germany and Yugoslavia.
I also felt that because all three of our opponents placed a lot of their emphasis on domination in midfield, that it was important for us to have a system that would match up numerically with the opposition in midfield.
The 3-6-1 was interpreted as defensive alignment and that's the furthest from truth. The 3-6-1 was our shape in defense and defense only. When we had possession of the ball, most of the time we played 3-5-2, but at good portions of the time we played in a 3-4-3.
This concept of there being a lone forward in attack was a misconception on the part of everyone.
If you were to go back and review the videotapes of the Austria match through the Germany match, you'll see there were very few occurrences where the opposition got in behind our defense.
In fact, in the four games that we played prior to the World Cup we had no goals against, and five goals in our favor.
Even in our match against Germany, neither Andy Moeller, nor Thomas Haessler, nor Oliver Bierhoff, nor Juergen Klinsmann combined to get behind our defense.
Offensively, in the five games when we played in that system, we had more scoring opportunities than whenever we played in any other system in the last three years.
We dominated Macedonia [0-0], we defeated Kuwait [2-0], we beat Austria and dominated that game. We created a number of opportunities against Scotland, and on one or two occasions our defense was exposed. But for the most part that system created a number opportunities and was more offensive than when we played in a 4-4-2.
SA: What about the notion that certain players weren't playing because of that system - the 3-6-1?
SS: You have to analyze who those players are, and those players were Jeff Agoos, Alexi Lalas, Marcelo Balboa and Mike Burns.
Burns proved through all of the preparation period from January to June, that he was on top of his game and could not only play in a 4-4-2 in a zonal system but also in a man-marking system. So it didn't impact Mike Burns.
So you have to ask if Agoos, Balboa and Lalas were in better form or are better players than David Regis, Eddie Pope and Tom Dooley. Of those three, the only one that anyone can make an argument for, in my opinion, is Marcelo Balboa, who could have seen playing time in the World Cup in place of Thomas Dooley. Thomas, as the tournament went on, was not 100 percent fit, from an injury standpoint. He was 80-85 percent, but I felt it was important to keep our captain on the field.
But I don't think Lalas and Agoos were better players than Pope and Regis.
SA: So the players who were on the bench were there because you thought they shouldn't be playing, not because they didn't fit into the 3-6-1?
SS: That's exactly right.
SA: Did David Regis' last-minute introduction have any negative effects?
SS: As it related to Alexi Lalas in particular - I think that he had a hard time accepting someone coming into the team so late and playing in a World Cup when he had basically sacrificed for many years to get to this point.
I can see that point of view, but as national team coach I have to make a decision based on what's best for the team or on what's best for the individual. Always the answer must be to do what's best for the team. The addition of David Regis was a positive decision from a pure playing standpoint.
From a chemistry standpoint it could have impacted one or two players who were very bitter about the inclusion of someone so late in the game. That's where professionalism takes over and that's where the respect for the coaching decision takes over.
The individual then makes a choice - to be professional and respect the coach, or voice his opinion publicly.
I think a lot of frustration Alexi showed through his comments were because he wasn't playing and I think he attributes that directly to me by bringing in David Regis rather than sticking with him.
SA: But Lalas wasn't playing much before Regis came in ...
SS: You the media have to decide, and I think have a responsibility, and to make a statement as to whether you believe whether Lalas was a better player than Regis or Pope. I haven't seen much of that at all.
SA: You made five lineup changes between the Germany and Iran game. Why so many?
SS: Let's go through them. Frankie Hejduk would have started against Germany if he had been 100 percent healthy. He incurred a hamstring injury three weeks before the World Cup.
He was about 45 minutes fit. I felt Mike Burns was playing well enough to start him in a wide position. If all he did was prevent Joerg Heinrich from getting behind him and being effective offensively, I think he would have performed his role well.
Putting in Frankie Hejduk in the second half was to inject some offense, which is exactly what happened. If we hadn't taken the goal, on the post on the corner kick, Mike Burns would have performed what he was asked to do.
The other change - the two defensive midfielders, Tab Ramos and Joe-Max Moore. If you evaluate the way Iran plays, they play a 3-5-2 with Hamid Estili - on their left side of the field, where Tab plays on the right side of our field - playing more as a defensive midfielder than one who attacks. So that makes more sense to me, because there would be fewer defensive responsibilities to put on Tab, giving him the freedom to attack from the interior midfield position.
Joe-Max Moore in place of Chad Deering - we needed a player on the field who not only could stay with the quickness of Mehdi Mahdavikia, but one that could, from a deep position, hold the ball for us, and be a connection from the backline to the frontline.
I had spent two weeks in practice prior to the Iran match giving Joe-Max Moore more experience in that defensive midfield role. It was by design and with forethought that he would play that role.
Brian McBride in place of Eric Wynalda. And Eric Wynalda did not have a good game against Germany. Eric Wynalda did not give us the energy we needed in that forward position. Eric Wynalda did not defend even when the ball was within five yards of him. We needed someone who gave us a higher work rate in a forward position and someone who was very dominant in the air, which we lacked against Germany.
The other decision was to remove one midfielder and put in another forward. I opted to play Roy Wegerle in that forward position in place of Ernie Stewart and use Stewart during the course of the game to bring a change to the rhythm of the game. Roy Wegerle is not that type of individual and no other person on the bench offered us that kind of ability. Hejduk can, [but he was starting], and Preki can change the rhythm only from an attacking standpoint.
There weren't that many changes. Maybe four changes, because Frankie would have started against Germany.
SA: You played all those preparation games with a 3-6-1, so did the changes for the Iran game indicate that you ...
SS: Abandoned the system? Absolutely not.
SA: So had you before the tournament planned to play different personnel and a different system in those two games?
SS: Yes. Absolutely. I expected to go from a 3-6-1 to a 3-5-2 in both the Iran and the Yugoslavia matches. But the changes are ever so slight, all you're doing is asking one of those attacking midfielders to play in a little more advanced position.
(continued . . .)
This is part 1 of 3