Steve Sampson is walking a fine line these days, his career precariously balanced on a swaying tightrope of possibilities.
As interim coach of the U.S. soccer team, which opened play Saturday in Copa America against Chile in Uruguay, one misstep will be enough to plunge him into the chasm below, just another American coach to fail in the international arena.
But if he succeeds, the prize will be well worth the risk.
He could achieve a long-sought ambition and be named coach, succeeding Bora Milutinovic, who was cast aside in April. His task then will be to qualify the United States for the 1998 World Cup in France.
“I think it’s every coach’s dream to be the coach of one’s country,” Sampson said. “It’s an honor, a privilege. I would love to have the job.”
But the powers that be in U.S. Soccer appear intent on hiring a “name” coach, a foreigner with credentials far more impressive than Sampson’s.
Or at least they were until Sampson, 38, surprised everyone by leading the American team to an emphatic victory last month in U.S. Cup ’95, beating Nigeria and Mexico and tying Colombia.
That success, and the stylish manner in which it was achieved, gave pause to Alan Rothenberg, the USSF president, and Hank Steinbrecher, the general secretary. Perhaps they were being too hasty in looking abroad for a replacement for Milutinovic. Perhaps Sampson, an assistant to Milutinovic on the 1994 U.S. World Cup team, was the answer.
The next two weeks may settle the issue. In Copa America, the world’s oldest continental championship, nothing less than Sampson’s career is at stake.
“I think I’m still on probation,” Sampson said. “I still think, for Alan [Rothenberg], it would be a risk to hire me. With all due respect, he needs a bit more convincing, and I accept that fully.
“He needs to be able to turn to the American soccer community and the federation board of directors and say, ‘Look, now he’s proven it.’
“Getting to the second round is the key.”
That will be easier said than done. Next, the United States plays Bolivia, then defending champion Argentina in the first round, all in the town of Paysandu near the Argentine border. A victory and a tie in the first round would assure a place in the quarterfinals.
“The way we’re playing, that’s not out of the realm of possibility,” Sampson said.
Indeed, American players have shrugged off the shackles of defensive soccer and become an attacking team. They go for the goal. Nigeria was beaten last month, 3-2. Mexico was thrashed, 4-0. Colombia was held to a strategic 0-0 tie, enough for the United States to win the tournament.
The emphasis on not being beaten has been replaced by a fierce desire to win. That has been Sampson’s contribution. He unlocked the shackles.
“It’s extremely satisfying [to have won the U.S. Cup] because I did take some risks to play the style of soccer I wanted,” he said. “I could easily have taken a conservative approach and just tried to get through the summer with some respectability.
“But people who really know me know that I couldn’t put up with that. I have to play the style of soccer that I truly enjoy and what I think Americans enjoy, and that’s offensive-minded soccer.”
Such a philosophy must have led to discussions, if not arguments, with Milutinovic, who, while far more adventurous than his own predecessor, Bob Gansler, nonetheless was inclined to keep the team under a tight rein.
“I think really the approach that Bora took was the appropriate one, given the circumstances,” said Sampson, diplomatic as ever. “I’m really reaping the benefit of the tremendous amount of experience that the players now have. A lot of them have two World Cups under their belt. I’ve got guys who have played a full year in Europe or Mexico, against pretty good competition.
“I think this [attacking] style maybe would have backfired two years ago.”
For Sampson, who lives in Agoura with his wife, Sheri, and their three children, entertaining soccer has always been the goal. He played at Foothill Community College in Los Altos, UCLA and San Jose State and coached at the first two and later at Santa Clara, which he led to an NCAA co-championship with Virginia in 1989.
University of Portland Coach Clive Charles, a former professional player in England and the old North American Soccer League, used to coach against Sampson and remembers his approach.
“I always found his teams to be extremely competitive, very well organized and they always attacked,” said Charles, chosen by Sampson as an assistant coach on the U.S. team.
“He likes his teams to get forward, to attack in numbers. The one thing we both have in common is that we like people to get on with the game. There’s nothing worse than watching a game where neither team is doing anything. They’re just putting 50 passes together and none of them is forward.
"[Sampson] wants to get forward as quickly as possible and as attractively as possible.”
The players have wholeheartedly endorsed this approach and now are campaigning to have Sampson appointed coach permanently.
Defender Marcelo Balboa of Cerritos, the first American and only the 26th player worldwide to play 100 games for his country, said the team’s performance in U.S. Cup ’95 reflected the players’ confidence in themselves and Sampson.
“I don’t think we ever play for a coach,” Balboa said. “We play for ourselves, we play for our country, and that’s important. To wear that uniform is a privilege. Now, it’s up to the federation to do whatever they have to do. But I think it helps having a coach you feel comfortable with, and that’s what we’ve got right now.
"[Sampson] knows all the players. He knows the federation. He’s been there for two years. He’s seen everything that’s been going on. He saw the way Bora was doing things. He was the logical choice. You had to give him a chance.
“If you bring in a foreign coach, it’s going to take him at least a year to get to know all the players.”
After Copa America, the players will scatter again to their clubs in Europe and Mexico and are unlikely to all be together again until qualifying starts for the 1998 World Cup, late next year.
“We need to have a coach--whether it’s Bora or Steve or Timo [Liekoski, the U.S. Olympic team coach]--who knows the players and knows what they can do,” Balboa said. “You need to know how to play when you go overseas for a qualifying game. That’s very important. The qualifying games in Honduras and El Salvador and Costa Rica are harder than the World Cup games.
“If they’re going to keep Steve Sampson [or] if they’re going to hire a foreign coach [or] if they’re going to rehire Bora, they need to make a decision soon.”
Midfielder John Harkes echoed that.
“I think Steve has done a great job,” he said. “He’s under a lot of pressure. The federation has to make its decision, but you [reporters] have seen how we’ve played, and that should be a good indication [of how the players feel about Sampson]. Steve’s got a good thing going and we’ve got to build on it.”
Sampson, who took over the team on 48 hours’ notice when Milutinovic was released in April, had to work quickly to calm the uproar Bora’s unexpected departure caused.
“I was very concerned how the players would accept my new position,” he said. “There were a lot of emotions flying. There were some players who were very disappointed that Bora was let go. There were mixed emotions on the part of others.
“I’ve been very pleased with their efforts both in training and in the games. The chemistry has been great.”
Part of the reason is Sampson’s understanding of the game and how it is meant to be played and coached. Although he was never a professional player, he has been around the game for 30 years, starting as an 8-year-old in the California Youth Soccer Assn.
“The beauty of soccer is that it’s a player’s game,” he said. “When you’re on the field, you really have a lot of opportunities to do a lot of independent thinking and be creative on your own. You have to strategize and resolve problems on the field as a team, with very little influence from the coaching staff. So, as a player, that’s what I loved.
“I did the American football thing. I did the American baseball thing, but the freedom of thought that one has on the field of play [in soccer] was so enjoyable for me.
“When I decided to go into coaching, it was really from that perspective. You have to work very hard as a coach during the week to allow your players, come game time, to be able to make decisions on the field and get things done.”
While Sampson was preparing the American team for its U.S. Cup triumph, Steinbrecher was globe-hopping, chasing first Portugal’s Carlos Queiroz and then Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira in a futile effort to lure them to the United States. Both turned down the opportunity.
Sampson said the fact that a highly public search for a foreign coach was going on while he was doing the job did not anger him and was not a distraction.
“It could have been if I’d really stopped to think about it,” he said. “But I was so focused on the job at hand. I mean, I had to prepare for Nigeria, Mexico and Colombia. A lot of time was spent researching them, videotape, and so on. I just could not get caught up in what was going on off the field.
“I had no time to resent it, but also absolutely no control. It didn’t matter what I thought about the situation. I had a job to do. I had a contract in hand. I was going to honor the contract and do the best job I can.”
That contract runs through July 31, although Sampson already has agreed to remain as coach through an early August tournament at Giants Stadium. After that, who knows?
What if a foreign coach is selected?
“I’ll support that coach 100%,” he said. “Absolutely. The worst thing that could happen is what has happened in the past--that is, a foreign coach has come in and factions in the American coaching community have not supported him. I think that just makes us go backward.
“Once that decision is made, we have to support that coach and we have to rally behind that coach so that we can go forward.”
Would he again serve as an assistant coach?
“I would not want to be imposed upon a coach. I would welcome the opportunity if that coach truly wanted me. I’d have to feel very good about the sincerity of the offer from that individual.”
How long is he willing to stay on as interim coach?
“I’m not willing to serve at the expense of losing an opportunity [to coach] in Major League Soccer. But I think something can be worked out where, if in fact they are going for a foreign coach, I can buy them some time as an interim coach.”
Why is there so much focus on signing a foreign coach?
“I think the federation, Alan [Rothenberg] specifically, really wants the most experienced man they can possibly get for the money. I think first and foremost they want someone who’s going to get the results for them. This time around, we have to qualify [for the World Cup].”
The problem, of course, is that a foreign coach would have to learn the American team and, quite likely, the regional opponents that the United States will have to overcome, from the ground up. Then, too, he might not play the same attacking style that Sampson has introduced and encouraged.
“I wonder how much respect a foreign coach gives the American player,” he said. “Given that, would they take the risk of playing offensive-style soccer, or would they play conservatively because they just don’t respect the abilities of the American player?
“American players sense this from foreign coaches because they experience it every day at their club sides in Europe. The American player is the first foreign player to be left off or benched or cut. It just happens all too often. A foreign coach quite possibly could bring that to the team.
“I guess the question is, could Queiroz or Parreira have done any different in this U.S. Cup? Would they have played any more attractively than the way we played? Could the results have been better?
“I don’t know the answer to that. No one knows the answer, but at least it’s worth pondering.”
The players know the answer, which is why the final word on Sampson belongs to Charles.
“I think one of his strengths, really, is that he’s a players’ coach,” he said. “He listens to his players and understands what they need. I think he presents something that they’re prepared to buy into.
“So far, things have gone very well. I think the players have enjoyed it. He’s earned their respect and, as a coach, that’s the highest compliment you can be paid. I think it’s time to call him Coach.”