The soccer careers of Steve Sampson and Miguel Mejia Baron took dramatically different turns Wednesday, with the former being hired as coach of the U.S. national team and the latter being fired as Mexico’s coach. The moves were inextricably linked.
The U.S. success in winning U.S. Cup ’95 and in reaching the semifinals of the America Cup in Uruguay earned Sampson the job. Mexico’s devastating 4-0 loss to the Americans in U.S. Cup ’95 and its 0-0 tie with the United States and subsequent ouster from the America Cup on penalty kicks cost Mejia Baron his job.
And if the musical chairs continue and the rumors are true, Bora Milutinovic, Sampson’s predecessor as U.S. coach and Mejia Baron’s close friend, could be taking over as Mexico’s coach. Milutinovic led Mexico to the quarterfinals of World Cup ’86, that nation’s greatest success ever.
Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, was asked about Milutinovic’s status during a Wednesday conference call with the media, and he offered a curt response:
“We have not yet worked out a settlement. I talked to Bora yesterday. He did not say anything about being hired by the Mexican federation to coach their national team.”
During an interview Monday, Milutinovic said “it would not be correct” for him to comment at this time and declined to speculate on Mejia Baron’s or his own immediate future.
In announcing Sampson’s hiring as national team coach, Rothenberg would not disclose either the amount or the length of the contract. Mejia Baron had been earning $700,000 a year in Mexico, but Milutinovic was believed to have been making less than one-third of that as U.S. coach.
“We’re not going to give details of [Sampson’s] contract, but it is multiyear and multi-dollars, and we obviously expect that Steve will be coaching our [World Cup] team in France in ’98,” Rothenberg said.
“People have said we picked Steve because of the results of U.S. Cup ’95 and the Copa America. Obviously, we were impressed with the results, but we were much more impressed by the way the results were obtained.
“Steve really did epitomize the American style. He had an opportunity, he went for it and his players responded. Even in the games that we lost, we played a style that made me proud to watch and be a part of. The way he did it was probably more impressive than the results themselves.”
Said Sampson: “When the phone call [from Rothenberg] came last Friday, I was ecstatic. It’s any coach’s dream in this country--who is the least bit competitive--to be in charge of the national team and have an opportunity to direct the team toward a World Cup.
“I feel very honored to do so, and I accept the challenge with the full knowledge and responsibility that this is a very critical time for soccer in the United States. We have to continue playing a good brand of soccer, continue to enthuse the U.S. public, continue to show that we can compete with the best teams in the world.
“This is a great challenge, and by no stretch of the imagination is it an easy task, but I think we have the players who can compete at the highest level. And I think we have the players who will qualify [for the 1998 World Cup] and the foundation of a team that will play extremely well in France and hopefully better than we did last year in the U.S. World Cup.”
The United States will play AC Parma of Italy on Friday at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in the Parmalat Cup. Benfica of Portugal will play Boca Juniors of Argentina in the second game. The losers will meet Sunday, with the championship game to follow. Tournament organizers invested $400,000 in covering the stadium’s artificial surface with grass for the games. . . . Major League Soccer announced it has repaid the $5-million loan it received from World Cup ’94 and is operating on funds provided by its investors. . . . Peter Bridgewater, formerly in charge of the defunct North American Soccer League’s Vancouver Whitecaps and San Jose Earthquakes, has been named general manager of MLS’ San Jose franchise. . . . U.S. national team defender Jeff Agoos of Virginia, former UCLA All-American Billy Thompson and fellow forward Jason Kreis of Duke and midfielder Derek Backman of South Africa were signed by MLS.