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U.S. Coach, Mexico Are History

Well, we don’t have Steve Sampson to kick around anymore.

But whether that’s a good thing or not will depend on whom U.S. Soccer chooses to replace him.

Sampson, who went into the World Cup with the best record of any U.S. coach and left amid a barrage of criticism from some of his own players and the media, resigned Monday.

The move was not entirely unexpected but the timing was surprising, as was the way in which the news was revealed.

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Rather than holding a press conference--and possibly subjecting the coach and the federation to even more abuse--the announcement was made via television and press release.

“We at the federation thank Steve for his tremendous service to our national-team program and to soccer in the USA,” Alan Rothenberg, the lame-duck president of U.S. Soccer, said in a statement released by U.S. Soccer in Chicago.

“His tireless work has helped advance our sport and on balance it was an era of growth. I compliment him on his many achievements with our team.”

So much for Rothenberg’s comment as recently as Thursday, “We will make a decision within 30 days after the tournament is over.”

So much for the statement by Hank Steinbrecher, the federation’s general secretary, who said that Sampson’s future as national team coach would be considered “in the aftermath of this [World Cup], not when the emotions are high.”

Instead, Sampson’s future was determined in a series of meetings here over the last few days, culminating in a breakfast meeting Monday morning that was described as friendly.

Rothenberg was not available for comment in France. Sampson, 41, wo was said to be flying home to California with his wife and son, later told the San Diego Union-Tribune: “I really came to terms with [resigning] in my own mind. Three losses is not an acceptable result. Maybe it’s time for someone else to see what they can do.”

U.S. Soccer said no further statements would be forthcoming until a new coach is hired.

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Sampson is the third World Cup coach to have resigned in the last week, following on the heels of Bulgaria’s Hristo Bonev and Japan’s Takeshi Okada. Three others--Saudi Arabia’s Carlos Alberto Parreira, South Korea’s Cha Bum Kun and Tunisia’s Henry Kasperczak--were fired.

After Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia in Nantes, a defeat that left the U.S. team 0-3 in France 98 and last amid the 32 competing nations, Rothenberg delivered what was almost a eulogy for Sampson. “He inherited the job almost by default in 1995 when he had absolutely no international coaching experience,” Rothenberg said. “He’s had some terrific success in the Copa America, the U.S. Cup and the Gold Cup, and was clearly tested in many ways here in France.

“I think he has shown a lot of ability and a lot of character and I applaud his effort.”

Sampson, a former Santa Clara University coach and an assistant under Bora Milutinovic with the 1994 U.S. World Cup team, took over as interim coach on April 14, 1995, when Milutinovic’s contract was not renewed. After winning U.S. Cup ’95 with victories over Nigeria and Mexico, he scored a resounding success at the 1995 Copa America, where the U.S. defeated Chile and shut out Argentina.

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On the strength of a semifinal showing in that tournament in Uruguay, Sampson was named coach on Aug. 2, 1995. Other notable achievements since then have been the 0-0 tie with Mexico in Mexico City last year during France 98 qualifying and this year’s 1-0 upset of Brazil in the Gold Cup.

He leaves with a record of 26-22-14.

But whether he left or was pushed is debatable. Only last Friday, in the wake of the World Cup debacle, he said, “At no point did I consider resigning. I worked too hard for this.”

Either he changed his mind or it was changed for him. Rothenberg said the federation would start from scratch in its search for a new coach.

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“We have a clean blackboard, so to speak,” he said.

Well, yes and no.

It is unlikely that any of Sampson’s three assistants will take over. Having been tarred by the same France 98 brush as Sampson, Clive Charles, Thomas Rongen and Milutin Soscik will not be seriously considered. In any event, Charles is the U.S. coach for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

It is possible that U.S. Soccer will once again try to land Parreira, the Brazilian who coached his country to the 1994 World Cup title. But he flopped badly as coach of Major League Soccer’s New York/New Jersey MetroStars, is not a developer of talent and, even though he was considered ahead of Sampson in 1995, he seems a longshot now.

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Bruce Arena, the coach who has led Washington D.C. United to consecutive MLS titles, is a possibility. He has a proven track record on the collegiate level--for whatever that’s worth--and in MLS, but lacks international experience. He coached the 1996 Olympic team without notable success.

And whether U.S. Soccer wants to risk its international reputation with another American coach is open to discussion, although UCLA’s Sigi Schmid would certainly be worth considering.

There is a remote chance that Milutinovic will be brought back, but again, that is considered a longshot.

An even longer shot, but one that U.S. Soccer might want to give more than passing consideration, is Galaxy Coach Octavio Zambrano.

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He is young. He looks the part. He is fluent in English and Spanish. He knows the young talent in the country. He knows the game even better. He gets along well with the media. His teams play the type of attacking soccer that Americans prefer.

He would be a perfect choice.

In other words, he probably doesn’t have a chance.


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