For those who know me, I am a soccer fan. I fell in love with the sport while watching the 1974 World Cup on television as a teenager and only grew to embrace it even more while actually getting the chance to stand on the sidelines as a reporter.
I still love the game and support it at all levels, but it’s also left a bad taste in my mouth.
The 1998 World Cup continues to conjure very dark memories.
The U.S. men’s national team had appeared to build on appearances in both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and enthusiasm was rampant, especially in the media, about the team’s upcoming journey to France.
The Chula Vista-Olympic Training Center was still the hub for U.S. Soccer in those days and the media — both local and national — gathered at the sprawling site overlooking the Lower Otay Reservoir for the team’s official send-off.
But something appeared amiss. Players weren’t talking much, not necessarily to the media, but to each other. Practice appeared listless and the morning gloom only served to intensify the mood.
After the team exited the practice field, media members turned to each other in amazement, wondering just what was up. It wasn’t just me. Many others present that day picked up on the team’s bad vibe.
Perhaps predictably, U.S. Soccer officials remained upbeat.
But something was wrong — very terribly wrong, in fact.
It took more than a decade of tight-lipped silence but we did finally learn why the U.S. team was doomed to failure before it even set foot in France.
The news finally broke in 2010 and it was messy.
According to reports, one of the players on the team had an affair with another player’s wife. The scandal had to tear the team apart, especially where trust and loyalty were concerned.
The U.S. team had advanced to the second round in 1994 in a much bally-hooed event, yet finished dead last among the 32 teams at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Falling flat on its face was a kind description. Sam’s Army lost by scores of 2-0 to Germany, 1-0 to Yugoslavia and … gulp, 2-1, to Iran.
Close on the scoreboard, yes. But it was how uninspiring the U.S. team played in those matches that made many viewers lose confidence in the program, including myself.
Shortly after the tournament, U.S. Soccer fired head coach Steve Sampson.
Then and now
Sixteen years and four World Cups later, the fortunes of U.S. soccer still haven’t improved much. The U.S. team almost invariably gets placed in the so-called “Group of Death.” The Yanks advanced to the Round of 16 at this year's tournament in Brazil despite their best efforts to earn an early ticket home.
The Americans blew a late lead in a pool match against Portugal to settle for a tie and only advanced to the next round on goal-differential. The U.S. team then exited the tournament after a 2-1 loss to Belgium in extra time.
Some may have shed tears over the heart-breaking loss, but not me. It was obviously disappointing but disappointing is a word often associated with the performance of the U.S. men’s national team.
It just seemed par for the course.
Yes, U.S. soccer has come a long way from 1990, but the game here still has far to go. There is much that remains to atone for in regard to the debacle in 1998.
How much of a say does current head coach Jürgen Klinsmann actually have in selecting player personnel? Not enough? Too much?
Even more to the point: Why is it with such an enormous youth soccer playing population in this country that we cannot produce players who can grab the spotlight — and seize the moment — on the international stage?
Those questions remain unanswered, and I’m not surprised why.