14 episodes

American Fiasco

WNYC Radio Arts
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After chronicling the rise and fall of the 1998 U.S. national team, Roger Bennett -- like Marty McFly in Back to the Future -- jumps into the DeLorean, sets the coordinates for present day, and blasts through space and time to return to 2018. Where he learns the Americans are once again mired in a World Cup fiasco.

Fortunately, the smoking-hot time machine has returned him to a studio at WNYC, where Roger sits down to talk with Freakonomics Radio host Stephen Dubner about the 2018 World Cup, including the U.S. team’s failure to qualify for the tournament.

They also deliver a primer on all the compelling drama that will unfold in Russia over the next month, including Lionel Messi’s quest for vindication with Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo’s eight-pack, and the Icelandic underdogs who swear they have Viking blood coursing through their veins (but are also being coached by a part-time dentist.)

Plus, Roger learns that Dubner, a soccer fan who hosts the podcast Footy for Two with his son Solomon, fell in love with the sport at his alma mater, Appalachian State University. The Division I upstart Mountaineers, as it turns out, were coached by none other than Hank Steinbrecher, the former U.S. Soccer executive and all-around soccer patriot who plays a key role throughout American Fiasco.

Later, with the announcement of the 2026 World Cup host coming this week, Roger weighs in on whether the joint bid by the U.S., Mexico and Canada has a shot. And, he predicts that -- somehow, some way -- the United States will win the World Cup in 2018.

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Jun 11, 2018

Episode 10: Injury Time

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What do you do after you’ve just crashed and burned in a World Cup?

That’s what the entire 1998 U.S. men’s national team was asking themselves, including the coach. The day after the team lost to Yugoslavia in its third and final World Cup game, Steve Sampson told the Washington Post that he wanted to remain head coach and that he wouldn’t let a few disgruntled players dictate his future. He even threatened to fine players who had aired their grievances in the press.  

But Sampson was smart enough to know he was headed for the exit. His boss, U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg, asked Steve to meet him for breakfast in Paris first thing Monday.

Sampson remembers: “I offered my resignation because I felt it was the right thing to do because I had lost three games in a world championship. I didn't want Alan to feel as if he needed to fire me. Before he could get it out of his mouth, I offered to him to resign from the national team."

Most of the players returned to the U.S., eager to forget the painful losses in France. But for Frankie Hejduk, the end of the World Cup marked a new beginning. He was actually kind of -- elated.

Amid all the drama swirling around the U.S. national team, Hejduk and his agent negotiated a contract to play with Bayer Leverkusen, a top-flight German team. This California surfer and reluctant soccer star was headed to the big time in Europe.

“It's crazy how that works out, right?” Hejduk remarks to Roger Bennett in American Fiasco. “It ended up changing my life in probably the best way ever because I wouldn't be here with you, doing interviews, I wouldn't be fishing. I wouldn't be hitting golf balls off my back deck.”

Hejduk’s excitement, of course, was the exception. Most of the team returned to the U.S., eager to forget their humiliating defeat in France. More than anything, 1998 was supposed to be the year that this group of guys, playing this game, finally won over the great uncaring American audience to establish the game they loved as a truly major league sport.

 

“The boys had blown it. We had really lost of lot of respect from the world and internationally,” says striker Eric Wynalda. “Not until Brandi Chastain saved it in 1999, did we have a good feeling about the sport.”

That was the year Chastain won the World Cup for the U.S. women’s team in a dramatic penalty shootout. Soccer was once again breakfast table conversation, because Chastain and Mia Hamm were plastered all over Wheaties boxes.

 

It’s been 20 years since the men finished last at the World Cup. The petty grievances, the outsized vanities and the rank embarrassment have mostly faded away. Since then, soccer has arrived in the United States.

Dozens of leagues are broadcast on American television. EA Sports FIFA isn’t just a best-selling video game; it’s an educational tool that is introducing generations to the rules, teams and stars of the sport. International icons Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi regularly poll in Americans’ top ten favorite sports heroes, outranking their N.F.L., M.L.B. and N.B.A. counterparts. This past season, 72,000 fans packed a stadium in Atlanta and set a Major League Soccer attendance record. The two previous records were held by, wait for it, Atlanta.

And today, though Americans were embarrassed that the U.S. men failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup, worry not. The U.S. Women will — let’s pray — redeem us once again at the 2019 World Cup. After all, they’ve won three World Cups to date.

As for the men’s team, hope still burns in the hearts of American soccer evangelists and 1998 survivors like Hank Steinbrecher.

“We're Americans,” Steinbrecher tells Roger in the final moments of the podcast. “Let's climb Everest. Let's go to the moon. Let's cure cancer. Go for it. Let's win a World Cup.”

 

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Jun 11, 2018

Episode 9: The World Cup Ends

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So far, the 1998 World Cup was going pretty badly for the U.S. men’s national team. They’d just played the Germans, losing 2-0 when they’d been counting on a tie. The next two games, against Iran and Yugoslavia respectively, now mattered more than ever.

First up, Iran.

As of game day -- June 21, 1998 -- Iran had been America’s sworn enemy for the past 20 years or so. Memories of the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran still made American blood boil. Even the White House was concerned, calling the secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Hank Steinbrecher, to confirm the U.S. was favored to win. And they were.

The Iranians had also lost their opening game. In fact, Iran had never won a World Cup match. Most of their players had not played outside of their own country. For the first time in this World Cup, the U.S. team was not the underdog. They were determined to get as many points as they could. They needed a win before they faced the formidable Yugoslavian team.

 

So for the Iran game, Sampson shifted the team’s strategy to all-out attack. He made five lineup changes -- that’s essentially half the team -- and abandoned the complex 3-6-1 formation he’d employed for the past two months.

Instead, Sampson organized the team in a 3-5-2 setup that uses two forwards. He went a step further, slotting in an additional forward (Joe-Max Moore) in what was normally a key defensive midfield role. Sure, the team would be vulnerable to counterattacks, but that was Sampson’s whole point: attack first, attack again, then keeping attacking.

Three minutes into the game, 26-year-old forward Brian McBride came close to scoring a header in his first-ever World Cup. The Americans had set the tone: they meant business. They continued to outplay Iran during most of the first half, except in one key way: The U.S. could not put the ball in the net.

After McBride hit the post, Claudio Reyna did the same. The Americans were doing everything right -- just an inch off the mark.

But in the 41st minute, Iranian midfielder Hamid Estili did not miss with a perfect header into the far corner of the goal. The U.S. returned to the locker room down 1-0.

Press officer Jim Froslid recalls that the locker room was devoid of positive energy. “You're 1-nil down. You're dominating. This is a moment where you know you can come back. Right?”

McBride says, “I don’t remember anybody getting fired up and screaming at each other or yelling something positive. No.”

The U.S. continued to play dominating football, but the goals just wouldn’t come. Meanwhile, Sampson’s all-out attack strategy had left the American side of the field vulnerable. Iran’s Mehdi Mahdavikia launched a one-man counterattack in the 84th minute, leaving a defender in the dust and rocketing the ball off U.S. goalkeeper Kasey’s fingers.

McBride finally scored a goal four minutes later -- the only goal the U.S. would notch in the entire tournament. The Americans could not equalize. They lost the game, 2-1, ensuring that the team would not advance past the group stage. The World Cup was effectively over.

After the game, the players went back to blasting Sampson in the press. Jeremy Schaap of ESPN was there that night and he remembers it “as the darkest place I’ve ever seen in sports.”

Dark indeed, the day a team has blown its chance at World Cup glory. Four days later, the U.S. had to play Yugoslavia, but the game was a formality at this point. And again, they lost. This time one-nil. The U.S. men’s national team had made a fool of American soccer in front of the whole world. A reckoning was coming.

 

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Jun 11, 2018

Episode 8: The World Cup Begins

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On June 15, 1998, the U.S. men’s national team was waiting to kick off their first World Cup game. The players warmed up in the tunnel before taking the field at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. Their German opponents were waiting there as well.

Of the three games the Americans were set to play, this first one was expected to be the hardest. Germany was (and still is) one of best national teams on the planet. The U.S. team was hoping for a tie, to stay in the running for the tournament’s next round.

Striker Eric Wynalda had played professionally in Germany, and he knew how good these guys were. “I knew Olaf Thon and Kohler. Christian Wörns. Those guys were laughing at me. And I'll never forget Kohler saying, ‘Got no chance. It's one against three.’ I think I just responded, ‘I know. You're right.’”

Specifically, the Germans were laughing at the American’s team’s new on-field formation, the 3-6-1. As implemented by U.S. coach Steve Sampson, the strategy called for three defenders, six midfielders and just one striker to carry the scoring burden. Wynalda was that lonely striker, whose only company would be three intimidating German defenders.

This 3-6-1 was rarely used in international soccer. It relies heavily on youth and speed. It requires players to be well-drilled in their roles and understand each other’s positions. When the 3-6-1 works, the formation is fast and lethal. But when it doesn’t, it can destroy the team almost before kick-off.

Most important: A complex strategy change requires buy-in from players, something that was in short supply on Sampson’s roster. Lest we forget: The team’s veterans were on the bench, the newbies were on the field, and everyone had been going stir-crazy in a secluded chateau.

So it wasn’t surprising that early on, in the 9th minute, the Germans took the lead with a corner kick. And in the 65th minute, they stole another goal. The Americans were outclassed and they were learning it in the worst way possible. Try as they might, the Americans couldn’t redeem the score. After 90 minutes, the game ended at 2-0.

Yet the loss gave the embittered veterans the opportunity they wanted: an opening to vent. Even though the U.S. team was still in the running for the trophy, some players went straight to the media.

Alexi Lalas blamed the chateau: "We were isolated in the middle of France, then plopped down in the middle of Paris where it's like a circus."

Roy Wegerle lambasted the 3-6-1, saying it was "twice the work and half the help.”

Eric Wynalda blamed the inexperienced starters. "You could tell some of us were playing for the first time in a World Cup," he told the LA Times’ Mike Penner.

Tab Ramos criticized Sampson’s decision to bench veterans Lalas, Balboa and Agoos. He told the Washington Post: “Obviously, you don't have to agree, and I don't.”

Weeks of the team’s internal grumbling, sniping and bad blood was now making headlines back home. Not only had the team lost their first game on the world stage, but they’d also lost their unity. How could they pull it together in time for their next two games against Iran and Yugoslavia? In each case, they had a chance of winning. But the team had become its own worst enemy.

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Jun 11, 2018

Episode 7: The Chateau

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When the U.S. men’s national team departed JFK International Airport for France on June 5, 1998, many players assumed they were headed straight into the heart of World Cup action.

Fourteen hours later, they arrived in the middle of nowhere.

It’s common for elite national teams to train in isolation during the final days before the World Cup. Argentina was holed up in the town of L’Etrat, in the Loire Valley. The English were hiding out on a golf resort an hour west of Nantes.

U.S. head coach Steve Sampson wanted the same thing for his players. “We were staying at the Chateau de Pizay, in one of the finest hotels in the world,” he tells Roger Bennett in episode 5 of American Fiasco. “We had a five-star chef preparing meals for these players. We had a magnificent training ground. France, Brazil and England all stayed there and I felt it was good enough for our national team.”

However, the Chateau de Pizay was surrounded by 130 acres of beaujolais vineyards in Saint-Jean-d'Ardières, four hours away from Paris.

Defender Marcelo Balboa remembers his frustration. “You're like, 'We're isolated up in a mountain, in a vineyard where I have to ride a bike into town 10 minutes just to get out and go do something.' We were like, 'Why are we being isolated? Why are we being secluded? Why are we being put by ourselves out here?'”

Jeremy Schaap, then an ESPN reporter embedded with the team, explains: “Look, mostly these were guys who were expecting something out of the World Cup akin to what Olympic athletes get out of the Olympic Village.”

“We wanted this to be ridiculously special for the players,” says Sampson. “It cost the Federation a lot more money than they anticipated.”

But his players just couldn’t -- or wouldn’t -- hack it. In the Chateau, their gilded prison, the inmates were going a little batty.

“It looked great from the outside,” remarks forward Eric Wynalda. But inside? “It was Hotel California, man, and we were inside those walls trying to figure out how we could just get through the next day.”

Everyone had their way of coping. High-stakes poker games were popular. Midfielder Preki Radosavljevic soon amassed enough cash to fill a sock he slung over his shoulder. (“Most of it was mine,” notes Wynalda.) Once, press officer Jim Froslid saw a pot that was about half his salary. Needless to say, he didn’t join the game.

Forward Brian McBride read the New Testament cover to cover for the first (and only) time. Midfielder Brian Maisonneuve told a reporter he was reading les pages jaunes … the yellow pages. Meanwhile, veteran midfielders Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart were spotted having conversations with the local ducks.

Each of these men, everyone on that team, had devoted his professional and personal life to this moment. They’d all made enormous sacrifices to be here, had beaten out every other American to make the squad, and then competed against each other to lock down starting roles. They’d desperately tried to impress their coach even when they did not understand what he wanted from them.

They had lost their captain. And now, they felt they were losing their minds.

On June 14th, 1998, the first kick-off was just a night away. Come morning, the U.S. would battle Germany on the football field. The whole world would be watching.

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Jun 11, 2018

Episode 6: Final Roster

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The U.S. men’s national team had done it. They’d qualified for the 1998 World Cup. Now it was time to find out which teams they would face.

The World Cup draw determines the matchups for the tournament’s first round, the so-called group stage. Imagine the Powerball drawing on your local TV station, except this one is watched by half a billion people around the world.

Instead of drawing lottery numbers, a high-ranking FIFA official plucks balls from a bowl. Each ball contains the name of a country. When its ball is drawn, that country is slotted into one of eight groups consisting of four national teams.

In other words, three years of hard work, international travel and swaggering self-confidence can all be erased by three little plastic balls.  

Hank Steinbrecher, who was then the secretary general of U.S. Soccer, attended the draw, which was held in an outdoor stadium in Marseilles on a chilly, windy December evening.

“So the first ball we draw is Germany,” he explains. ”And I distinctly remember sitting in my seat, saying, ‘Oh great. We’ve had two wars with them. They’re only the best team in the damn world and we’re playing Germany to start out with!’ Next is Iran! ‘Oh great. They have our hostages. This is going to be a diplomatic nightmare.’”

“Next one is Yugoslavia!” he continues.  “Which is a great team and we are currently bombing them. So I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be a whirlwind of warfare.’”

Before facing these opponents in France, however, the U.S. team still had many challenges in the coming months. The players had to compete with each other to secure a spot on the final team roster. And coach Steve Sampson introduced a complex, new on-field formation, the 3-6-1, which changed everyone’s roles and prioritized speed and younger players. In turn, the team’s most veteran and high-profile players began to ride the bench.

Meanwhile, a newcomer arrived with just weeks to go before the World Cup. David Regis hadn’t helped the U.S. team qualify for this World Cup. In fact, he wasn’t even a U.S. citizen: he was born in Martinique, a territory of France, and had been playing professionally in France and Germany. But Regis was married to an American and at the behest of Sampson, was racing to get his U.S. citizenship. While Regis was doing that, he was also competing for a starting position against the team’s beloved left back, Jeff Agoos.

Agoos was no stranger to this gauntlet. He’d been cut from the World Cup team in 1994 at the last minute. He’d been so upset at the time that he burned his U.S. jersey in a fireplace. Fast forward four years, and Agoos feared he might once again be left behind.

On June 2 -- just two days before the team was scheduled to depart for France -- Sampson finally submitted his World Cup roster to FIFA. Twenty two players would represent the U.S.A. at the 1998 World Cup, including both Agoos and Regis. But Regis would be starting and Agoos, the veteran, would be watching from the bench.

Regis was elated and even teared up during the national anthem in his first World Cup game. But the team’s core of older players, who identified with Agoos and his plight, were none too pleased. A storm was brewing on the horizon.

 

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American Fiasco isn’t Roger’s only podcast gig. Along with his great friend (and fellow bald) Michael Davies, he hosts the soccer show Men in Blazers. That show’s unofficial slogan -- “Soccer. America’s sport of the future, as it has been since 1972” -- is based on the hilarious expectation that soccer is forever tomorrow’s sport. Always on the horizon, having never quite arrived.

When Roger first came to the U.S. in the 1993, Americans were not just inured to soccer’s charms. They actively disliked it. Roger was fascinated by their malice -- and about what’s important to Americans in sports. Even today, with the rise of MLS and growth of the game nationwide, soccer still has its skeptics who savor a good dig at the game.

In this bonus episode, Roger sits down with Dan Katz, better known as Big Cat. The Barstool Sports personality and host of Pardon My Take explains why he and other Americans won’t take soccer seriously, in part because of its time-honored association with orange slices and Oreos.

 

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Jun 04, 2018

Episode 5: Captain for Life

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John Harkes was off the team. It didn’t make any sense. Harkes was practically born to play on the national team. He grew up in Kearny, N.J. -- nicknamed “Soccertown U.S.A.” -- where everyone he knew was the kids and grandkids of Scottish and Irish immigrants, and a love of soccer was in their DNA.

“We played constantly,” remembers Harkes. “We got kicked off the baseball fields, we got kicked off the American football fields, we got the ball stolen by the police and then had to have our dads go down and get the ball back again so we could play again that night.”

That non-stop playing paid off. Harkes was recruited by the University of Virginia and in his senior year, he quit college and joined the U.S. national soccer team. In 1990, the 23-year-old helped the team qualify for the World Cup for the first time in four long decades.

He was so good that he got picked up by one of the oldest pro teams in England, Sheffield Wednesday. It was a tough initiation for the young American, but he found a way to prove himself: with a blast from 35 feet out that flew past one of England’s best goalkeepers of all time, a legend name Peter Shilton. It was Harkes’ way of saying, “Hey, Americans can do it.”

But there was no time for celebrating. “Don’t get caught up in your emotions,” he told himself. “You’re an American. You’re trying to break in here. Get back to business.” Because professional soccer has an unforgiving, unsentimental culture. All that matters is the game.

  

By the time Harkes returned to the U.S. in 1996 to play for the shiny new Major League Soccer, he had become a legit international star – as well as one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful – and was named Captain for Life by team manager Steve Sampson. Harkes was funny, confident, well-liked and respected by his teammates.

And he was Eric Wynalda’s best friend.

They had been teammates for eight years and worked well together. Harkes could take the pressure off when Wynalda got too intense. They were partners in locker-room comedy and on the team bus did scenes from Dumb and Dumber or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

But Steve Sampson didn’t always appreciate Harkes’ breezy personality. And on April 14, 1988, Sampson called a press conference and announced that John Harkes – the man who’d become arguably the centerpiece of American soccer – was off the team.

The announcement shocked everyone – reporters, fans, players and Harkes himself: “I was just like, ‘Wow. I don’t understand.’”

At the time, Sampson vaguely cited discipline and leadership issues. In American Fiasco, Sampson boils his decision down to three strikes -- only two of which were made public at the time of Harkes’ ouster.  

Strike one: Sampson says Harkes, a midfielder used to playing at the center of it all, initially refused to move to left back during an exhibition match against Holland. (Harkes disputes this, saying he was merely reluctant.) Strike two: Two days later, Sampson says Harkes and other players went out on the town and trashed a hotel room. (Harkes also disputes this.)

Strike three is a longer story.

The last straw for Sampson involved allegations that Harkes was having an affair with another player’s wife. Upon hearing the news, Sampson says he knew immediately that he’d have to kick Harkes  off the team. “There were lines that you do not cross over. You don’t have an affair with another player’s wife." And it wasn’t just another player, but his best friend, Eric Wynalda.

The story behind that third strike wasn’t made public for 12 years, until Wynalda himself revealed it on his soccer talk show, Fox Football Fone-in. He and co-host Nick Webster were discussing an English player being accused of having an affair with the ex-girlfriend of a teammate.  Webster said, “Well, you’ve had experience with this, Eric.” At that point, Wynalda explained to viewers, “there were allegations that John Harkes had been, had an inappropriate relationship with my wife and he was removed from the team for that reason.”

  

Sampson then broke his silence about the matter and spoke to reporters. “It was a relief, for me, because, finally, people heard the truth,” he says. (John Harkes declined to discuss allegations of an affair.)

Many players were surprised to learn an off-field issue had subtracted Harkes’ on-field skills and leadership from the team. Alexi Lalas was angry. Had he known the reason at the time, he says he would have said, “I want him on my team because he’s a good soccer player. As a professional, I will forgive you a lot as long as you’re going to help me win.”

Even Eric Wynalda was against Harkes getting sacked. “I thought that if I can handle it, Steve should have been able to handle it. Ripping John off that team was ripping the heart out of our team.”

All these years later, Steve Sampson doesn’t regret his decision, but he’s learned an important life lesson from it: “That to be a principled man, always comes with consequences.”

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Join host Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers for this story of the U.S. men’s soccer team that swaggered onto the international stage and set out to win the 1998 World Cup in France. When they arrived, they faced only one serious opponent: themselves.
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