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Sampson’s Weakness Was No-Win Situation

Under better circumstances, with better midfielders and better strikers and better defenders and better tactics, Steve Sampson was going to be spending the last Monday in June in Toulouse, coaching upstart Team USA against Holland in the World Cup’s round of 16.

Instead, Sampson spent the day resigning as U.S. national coach--intriguing bit of timing, that--which means the U.S. Soccer Federation can finally send out those promotional fliers stacked up in the back room to Carlos Alberto Parreira, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Arrigo Sacchi, Glenn Hoddle, Bruce Arena, Phil Jackson, Mike Holmgren, Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas and every other prospective candidate on the federation’s short list.

One U.S. Soccer Federation source leaked one of the fliers to reporters here--and was immediately fined by Sampson and given a vote of confidence by Alan Rothenberg.

Excerpts:

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* “U.S. Soccer! We’re better than Kuwait!”

* “Canada lost to us, too!”

* “Your job is as secure as the manager of the Dodgers!”

* “Iran isn’t on the schedule until at least 2002!”

* “Jamaica, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Aruba and the Cayman Islands are in our qualifying region!”

* “You’ll be included in the same media guide as our World Cup and Olympic champion women’s soccer team!”

* “We stayed in the World Cup as long as Spain and Bulgaria!”

* “We have the same colors as France and Yugoslavia!”

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* “We’re No. 32!”

* “Nike hasn’t dropped us yet!”

Monday, Rothenberg thanked Sampson for his “tireless work” and his “many achievements with our team,” which is noteworthy, to say the least.

Before Rothenberg’s statement, everyone had assumed that Sampson had the most thankless job in international soccer.

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As U.S. national coach, Sampson headed a program that is ignored by most of the U.S. population for 47 months out of every 48--then makes front-page news when it loses to Germany and Iran; that forms its player pool only after football, basketball, baseball and hockey have siphoned off the best athletes available; that desperately needs to send its top players to the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga for experience against elite competition, yet has to keep them at home to promote the fledgling--and comparatively minor league--MLS.

Sampson was criticized, and rightly so, for his mismanagement of this World Cup campaign. He used the wrong players, tied himself to the wrong formation and seemed ill at ease with the pressure and responsibility that come with coaching a team in the World Cup.

But the stark reality was that Sampson’s hand in France was exceedingly limited. Sure, he talked, for P.R. purposes mainly, about getting to the second round. But check out the rosters of the 16 teams that moved on and compare them to the United States’.

Sampson had one player--goalkeeper Kasey Keller--who could have cracked the starting lineup of any round-of-16 team. Defenders Eddie Pope and David Regis might have seen a few minutes as reserves. Maybe Frankie Hejduk could have come off the bench for, say, Mexico.

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All in all, however, the United States simply wasn’t worthy of the second round. Take a look at the lower end of the final 16--how Paraguay defended like demons for almost two hours against France; how Denmark shut off the high-speed Nigerian production line; how Norway was able to stymie Brazil.

If the World Cup is world soccer’s equivalent of the NBA playoffs, Team USA was Team CBA.

The second round at this level is exceedingly fast company, as Mexico and Yugoslavia painfully rediscovered Monday in 2-1 losses to perennials Germany and Holland.

Mexico scored first against Germany--a nifty little dance through the box by Luis Hernandez--and all that accomplished was to seriously get on the Germans’ nerves.

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Hot and bothered, the Germans scored twice in 11 minutes--Jurgen Klinsmann pouncing on a Mexican defensive bobble in the 75th minute, Oliver Bierhoff pummeling a header past little Jorge Campos in the 86th. Never mind the “golden goal"--unless you come to the pitch with a silver stake in hand, Germany simply refuses to fade away.

Yugoslavia learned as much in group play when it led the Germans by two goals after 72 minutes--and was barely able to limp off the field with a 2-2 tie. That helped consign the Yugoslavs to second place in Group F, which consigned the Yugoslavs to a second-round matchup with Holland, a squad that may be the best balanced--from keeper to striker--in the tournament.

Yugoslavia played the Dutch evenly for 90 minutes, but blinked in the 92nd and there was Edgar Davids, conducting the Dutch group-goal celebration, seconds before the final whistle.

That could have been Mike Burns and Brian Maisonneuve chasing Davids and Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars all over Toulouse, had Sampson’s fanciful master plan played itself all the way out.

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At least Sampson spared the nation the possibly irreparable psychic damage of that grisly sight, even if it did cost him his job in the end.

Sampson took one for the team.


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