Gold Cup: An Elephant in the Living Room

After Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena squared off at the Orange Bowl for the first time since sharing the 1989 NCAA title, nobody made it personal.

One of the most memorable and controversial championship games in NCAA history was the 1989 final, at Rutgers in frigid weather conditions. With temperatures in the teens and wind chill of minus-30, Santa Clara and Virginia remained tied, 1-1, after regulation and four 15-minute overtime periods. At the time, no regulations were in place for a penalty kick tiebreaker, so the NCAA declared co-champions.

In the postgame press conference, Steve Sampson, Santa Clara coach at that time, fell just shy of declaring his team champion.

''We're the only undefeated team in the country,'' Sampson said. ''We're the No. 1 team in both polls. We felt Virginia had to come in here and beat us to take over that position.''

Five years later, after the Cavaliers had three of their four consecutive titles outright, then-Virginia coach Bruce Arena addressed those comments in the book Arena Ball by Rob Daniels.

''I didn't think a lot of that, especially since it came from a guy who hasn't accomplished much in the sport,'' Arena said in the book. ''This was not Jerry Yeagley or Steve Negoesco talking.''

That exchange gained irony as Sampson preceded Arena as U.S. national team coach, then added intrigue to the recent third-place game of the Gold Cup in Miami. Sampson, now the coach of Costa Rica, faced Arena in competition for the first time in 14 years.

Sampson recently recollected a meeting with the NCAA officials on the eve of the icy final.

''I raised the issue that if you go past four overtimes, that you shouldn't declare co-champions, that it should go to penalties,'' Sampson said. ''And the first thing that Bruce said was, 'It won't get that far.' That was my first experience with Bruce.''

Sampson laughed at the punch line because while he and Arena ''were much more competitors than colleagues at that time,'' the two now have a much different relationship as two of most accomplished American coaches ever.

''It's not as if we're friends that play poker every Sunday night,'' Sampson said. ''We're colleagues, and there's mutual respect there. Certainly, he understood the challenges of the '98 team; I understand the challenges that he's had and what a good job he's done with the team. The growth that soccer has seen over the last 10 years - he's been a big part of that. We don't have any problems.''

Arena, meanwhile, laughed at the notion that he and Sampson might still have a score to settle over the 1989 final, noting their relationship has been ''good'' in recent years.

''If you think that's what the third-place game was about, you're really stretching things,'' he said. ''One thing has nothing to do with the other.''

SAMPSON'S CHALLENGE. During the first round of the Gold Cup, the two watched games together in a suite at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. They chatted, among other things, about the challenges Sampson now faces.

Although bilingual, Sampson said adjusting to the culture, demands of the media and subpar infrastructure of the Costa Rican federation were difficult at first. Including the Gold Cup, Sampson has eight wins, four losses and one tie in his first eight months on the job.

''They take it very seriously down here,'' Sampson said. ''I'm literally doing 10-15 interviews a week, and they're long. Everyone wants their own soundbite. It's not as if you can address all of them at once in a press conference. The press has told me they've never had a national team coach that is as available to them, so that has helped, but it's at the expense of my own personal time.''

After eight months apart, Sampson's family moved to San Jose, Costa Rica, in early August, so that time commitment may become even more trying. His three children - ages 14, 12 and 9 - will attend an English-language school that is certified by the state of California Board of Education, but they also will learn Spanish. Missing his family has been the toughest part of the job, Sampson said.

While often maligned for the U.S. team's 0-3 showing at the 1998 World Cup, Sampson led the team to the semifinals of the 1995 South American championship, a win over Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup and qualification for France '98. His winning percentage with the national team (.532) is second to Arena's (.597) among those who coached at least five games. He is also the first American to coach another national team that has qualified for the World Cup. Arena supports Sampson's latest endeavor.

''I think it's great,'' Arena said. ''It only enhances the stature of American coaches. We don't get enough credit for being able to coach at any level. If Steve is successful with Costa Rica - which I think he will be - it's only going to help the cause of American coaches.''

Arena also believes Sampson's job is more difficult in some ways than his own.

''A big difference - and we've discussed this - is that I can play a variety of players and nobody cares, nobody knows in this country. It really doesn't matter. So I can go ahead and do that. He can't. He's playing basically the same players they've had, instead of being able to look at younger players and the whole bit. That's difficult. That's the pressure on him to win. It's a lot easier for me to experiment. In his country, he's going to be examined on every move he makes.''

GUNS BLAZING. Much the way it did in a losing effort in the semifinals, Costa Rica came out guns blazing against the United States - despite having arrived in Miami about 27 hours before kickoff and having completed its game against Mexico about 18 hours before that. Rolando Fonseca put the Ticos on the board in the 25th minute, then put his team ahead again after Carlos Bocanegra had tied the game off a corner kick sequence.

The U.S. appeared rattled entering halftime down a goal, but emerged from the locker room rejuvenated after being, in one player's words, ''reamed'' by Arena. Earnie Stewart hit a thunderous volley - again on a corner kick sequence - to tie the game in the 56th minute and goalkeeper Kasey Keller initiated an impressive counterattack goal by Bobby Convey in the 69th minute with an accurate throw to Landon Donovan near midfield.

The U.S. team rejoiced its 3-2 victory, while Sampson and Costa Rica took nearly 45 minutes to emerge from their locker room. During postgame remarks, the Sampson-Arena matchup seemed to be the proverbial elephant in the living room that went unmentioned. Arena thoroughly complimented Costa Rica for how it handled the travel and joked that ''reamed'' might actually be too soft a term for his halftime words.

''It turned out to be a great game, for a third-place game,'' Arena said. Later he added, ''It wasn't lopsided by any means [in the first half], but I just think our effort wasn't what it needed to be. I was very impressed with the energy that Costa Rica brought to the game. That game obviously meant a lot to their team, and they came out strong.''

Sampson's armchair posture a few days later was one of satisfaction with his team's Gold Cup performance overall, but dissatisfaction with the last game's circumstances. He said his team convinced him it is capable of qualifying for Germany 2006.

''The excitement of playing the U.S. was tainted by the fact that we literally had to fly the day before the match,'' he said. ''It really didn't give us the opportunity to prepare as well as we would have liked. Having said that, it was obviously a special moment for me to see the players again, to say hello and to see them play.''

The apparent conflict of loyalties that results from coaching a team in your home country's confederation does not bother Sampson. He believes that the U.S. improvement only pushes Costa Rica's federation to follow and that any success he has with Costa Rica will, in turn, push the United States and CONCACAF in general to new heights.

Earlier in the tournament when a reporter pressed Sampson about whether he had lingering feelings about the '98 World Cup, he seemed terse in his response: ''Let's put it this way France '98 was half a decade ago - it's ancient history as far as I'm concerned. I've moved on.''

Yet after noting the somewhat diluted starting lineups of the third-place game and recalling how much he enjoyed tying Mexico at Azteca Stadium in 1997 with his mentor, Bora Milutinovic, on the opposing bench, Sampson eagerly awaits another meeting with the United States.

''Only after we've had the opportunity to play at home and play away, will you really be able to measure the differences between the two teams,'' Sampson said. ''I look forward to them having the opportunity to prepare ideally for the next match and for us to be able to prepare ideally for the next match and to see where it lies after that.''

As for his current relationship with Arena, Sampson said it remains cordial until game day, when ''competitiveness becomes the first objective and being colleagues goes out the window.''

by Soccer America Senior Editor Will Kuhns

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