Instead of defensive midfielders and lone strikers, the first question Steve Sampson fielded from reporters Thursday dealt with the Secretary of State--specifically, Madeleine Albright's interest in normalizing U.S.-Iran relations.
Sampson mulled over the question, then replied that he was in favor of normalization, of course.
At which point a reporter in the back of the pack interjected, "Does this mean you're going back to 4-4-2?"
Sampson smiled and shook his head.
"I think what she wants," Sampson said of Albright, "is three points."
The response drew a round of laughs, but Sampson wasn't getting off nearly that easily. Amid rumors that the U.S. soccer coach was seriously considering a switch in formations for Sunday's game against Iran--back to two forwards, with Tab Ramos as one of them--Sampson was asked again a few minutes later:
Will it be 3-6-1 or 4-4-2?
"Yes. Maybe. I don't know," Sampson said. "We could play any one of the above.
"We played the same system in the second half against Germany as we did in the first half. Whatever the system, we have to be much more focused. We have to start quickly--we can't ease our way into the match. I should say very quickly."
According to Sampson's preferred game plan, this means not shaking in one's boots for the match's first eight minutes and yielding a goal on a corner kick in the ninth minute and not shifting into minimum World Cup-level intensity until the second half--as his team did in Monday's 2-0 loss to Germany.
"We have to have a much greater physical presence in this next game," Sampson said. "That would get us into the game faster. And that means closing down on defense, hard tackling, winning balls in the air, totally dominating one-on-one matchups."
Sampson was resolutely coy about possible lineup and formation changes, but it is believed he is considering benching Ernie Stewart, all but invisible against Germany, and starting Ramos in an attacking role, possibly as a withdrawn striker.
Asked if he thought Stewart was involved enough in the offense, Sampson said, "Prior to the Germany game, I felt he was very involved. . . . In the 3-6-1, it's up to the attacking midfielders to move up and support the forward. Against Germany, I felt both Claudio [Reyna] and Ernie were playing too conservatively."
Iran team officials were angered this week when a French television station aired the American-made movie "Not Without My Daughter," starring Sally Field in a story that portrays Iranian society in a negative light.
Jalal Talebi, the Iran coach, has accused the television station of deliberately airing the movie now to disrupt Iranian preparations for the U.S. match, claiming, "It made everybody unhappy in our camp."
In the American camp, Alexi Lalas tried to shrug off the controversy.
"Oh yes, a good movie," Lalas quipped when asked if he'd heard of the film. "Sally Field did a tremendous job in that movie. I've seen it several times myself."
When someone mentioned the reaction of Talebi to the movie, Lalas shook his head.
"If they are insulted by a movie that's showing, they've got big problems," Lalas said. "That's their problem."