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Q & A with Former Men’s National Team Head Coach Steve Sampson

Steve Sampson had a successful soccer career as player through college before transitioning to coaching after he graduated. As a grad student at Stanford University, he started coaching a local high school boys’ varsity team. From there he moved to the collegiate level as head coach of Foothill College before taking on an assistant position at UCLA. After three years at UCLA he became head coach of Santa Clara University where he was named NCAA Men’s Soccer Coach of the Year in 1989.

Sampson began his National Team career in 1993 when he became an assistant coach under Bora Milutinovic. He served as the assistant during the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States and later took over as head coach of the team in August 1995 after Milutinovic resigned. Sampson commanded the U.S. MNT during several historic games during his career, including the USA’s only victory against soccer powerhouse Brazil. Below Sampson discusses some of these historic games and his memories of coaching the U.S. Men’s National Team. In 1994 you served as an assistant coach for the Men’s National Team during the FIFA World Cup. What was it like building up to the tournament with the U.S. hosting that World Cup?
Steve Sampson: “I was an assistant coach to Bora Milutinovic. It was obviously an incredible honor to assist a man with so much experience. He was a very unique individual. He was able to secure a training center and full residency for essentially a collegiate all-star team. These were players that were not playing professionally at the time or were brought back from a professional team to be in full time residency with U.S. Soccer. Bora basically taught our players what it meant to be professionals.

With that as a preface, I think Bora did a phenomenal job of teaching our players what it meant to compete against the likes of Mexico, who at that time was our nemesis, and continues to be our nemesis. Mexico was pretty much in control of the results between the United States and Mexico prior to the ’94 World Cup and Bora literally changed that whole mentality for the U.S. team. We faired very well against all of our other CONCACAF opponents. But to really change our mentality against Mexico was the turning point I think for our preparation for the ’94 World Cup.” In the ’94 World Cup, the United States defeated Colombia, who was one of the favorites coming in to the tournament. Can you talk about that match and the performance of the U.S. team?
SS: “The coach Maturana from Colombia had probably the most historical qualification phase in the history of Colombia leading up to this World Cup. I believe that year they beat Argentina 5-0. So the world was really looking for Colombia to do great things. Certainly the people of Colombia were expecting Colombia to do much better than they did.

But along with those expectations came an enormous amount of pressure. I remember the president of Colombia coming down to the locker room minutes before the Colombian team took the field. I can’t tell you exactly what he said but as those Colombian players came out of the locker room, you could see the pressure on their faces. They were playing for more than just themselves; they were playing for an entire country. I think the United States took advantage of the pressure that was put on their players.

The Colombians individually were exceptionally technical; collectively they were one of the best teams in the world at the time. We as a United States National Team played the game of our lives, and had fun doing it. We played attractive soccer. We scored one brilliant goal and got one goal on an own goal by Andres Escobar, which tragically ended up in his death months later back in Colombia. It was a historic match for our development as a soccer playing nation, but it also led to a very tragic event back in Colombia for Escobar.” You mentioned Earnie Stewart’s goal. What was your perspective on that? Describe seeing that unfold on the field.
SS: “Well I was sitting next to Bora and he actually felt 30 minutes into the game that we were going to win this match, but he was hoping that Colombia would not score. When Earnie Stewart scored his outstanding goal, Bora turned to me and said ‘look, I hope this scoring holds up because if we tie or if we take a goal, that could mean a difference in the goal differential, which would mean that we might have to play Brazil in the second round.’

We actually went up 2-0 in the match with the own goal and Earnie’s goal. Low and behold, late in the match, Colombia scored a goal. Bora turned to me and said ‘Well, I know we don’t know what the result is for our next game yet, but I believe that instead of playing Spain in the second round, we will now have to play Brazil on the Fourth of July, 1994.” Bora is somewhat of a mythical figure in a lot of ways for our fans and for anybody who’s worked with him. You were perhaps the closest person to him during this process as his assistant. Are there any stories that stand out to you as something that sums up this man?
SS: “Well, Bora is a master of saying everything and nothing at the same time. He keeps everyone guessing. He has this charm about him and a smile about him that everyone falls in love with. I will tell you, however, that the players weren’t necessarily always enthralled with him because we would literally have three to four hour video sessions and the players would constantly be looking at their watches wondering ‘when is this guy going to finish?’

What that meant to me was that Bora was trying to stretch these American players and really teach them what it meant to be completely focused and committed to one task. That’s why I really believe that he made a difference with the American players, teaching them what it meant to be a professional.”
In the Copa America tournament in 1995, the U.S. beat Argentina 3-0. Take us through that famous win.
SS: “Well, it’s difficult to talk about the Argentina match without going back a month prior to that when we were playing in the U.S. Cup. In the summer of 1995 we played Nigeria, Mexico, and Colombia. The Nigeria match we won 3-2 and the next match was against Mexico. This was a country we had historically struggled with and on that day we beat them 4-0. It was a major statement on the part of the U.S. National Team that what we accomplished in the ’94 World Cup we wanted to continue in 1995. Then we tied Colombia after having beaten them in the World Cup. We played them in the third match of the U.S. Cup and they actually won that U.S. Cup.

Two weeks later, we traveled down to Paysandú, Uruguay, literally 50 miles from the Argentinian border. Little do people know that the players went on strike just prior to our match against Chile, the first match in the Copa America. So we did not train for four days prior to that match. The Federation and the players resolved their issues, and with one training session prior to the game, we beat Chile 2-1. Then we had to play Bolivia three days later without Marco Etcheverry, who was one of the best players in the world at the time, and ended up losing to them 1-0.

Our last match in group play against Argentina became a very important match for us. We had to beat Argentina or at the very least tie them in order for us to go on. On that day, the U.S. team had one of its best performances in history. I remember a goal by Alexi Lalas and a goal by Eric Wynalda, and I can’t tell you how proud I was to be the National Team coach at that time and to actually watch these American players playing with the desire to go forward. Instead of playing back on their heels and defending and respecting the opponent too much, we actually took the game to them. It was 2-0 at half time and we expected Argentina to make all sorts of critical substitutions since they hadn’t made any of their substitutions at that time. But instead of us playing back on our heels, we went for the third goal. At the end of that match, after having won 3-0, there was a lot of celebration in the locker room. One of the great moments was when Diego Maradona came down to the locker room and greeted our U.S. players and told them how proud he was of not only the fact that they beat Argentina but of the quality of soccer that they played.” In the 1998 Gold Cup, the U.S. beat Brazil 1-0. This remains our only victory against Brazil. Can you talk about that match?
SS: “The 1998 Gold Cup in Los Angeles turned out to be one of the most historic Gold Cups in the history of U.S. Soccer. We met Brazil in a semifinal match at the Los Angeles Coliseum. We knew we were playing against an exceptional Brazil team; a team that had Romario, one of the greatest strikers in the history of the game. But on that day, it was all about Kasey Keller, his exceptional play and how brilliant he was in that game. Romario calls it one of the best goalkeeper performances in the history of soccer and I agree.

We actually didn’t deserve to win the game short of Kasey Keller’s performance and short of Eric Wynalda playing a beautiful ball across the top of the 18 to Preki, who with his brilliant left foot put the ball by Taffarel. That happened close to the end of the match and when the referee at the end of the match decided that there were five minutes of extra time, it was the longest five minutes I’ve ever lived in my life, because I knew what the consequences were of beating Brazil for the first time in our history. The team played exceptionally well. Defensively we shut down the Brazilians. But the Brazilians probably created 20 clear goal-scoring opportunities that Kasey Keller brilliantly saved on that night.” Preki came in to that game as a second half substitute. What do you remember about putting him in the game
SS: “Well Preki had been playing indoor soccer for many years prior to joining the U.S. National Team. I believe I brought him in in either late ’95 or early ’96. We really didn’t have a lot of gifted left-footed players in the United States. Preki had to make an adaptation from the indoor to the outdoor game. His ability to play 90 minutes was not very good so typically he came on as a sub. We would either play him in his natural position on the left side of midfield or play him on the right side of midfield and allow him to come inside to set up his left foot with a better angle on goal. He was effective on both sides of the field.

I remember the brilliant move he made against the Costa Rican outside back that led to an assist to Tab Ramos in a qualification match in Portland that actually allowed us to win that game 1-0. But I think Preki will always be known for the brilliant strike that he made against Brazil. He was injected into the game at a very important time in the match. We needed someone to generate some attack for us. It was a good build up ball played in to Wynalda who played the ball square across the top of the 18. Preki was about 20 yards out and with his left foot bent the ball around Taffarel to beat him to the near post. I don’t think Taffarel expected that kind of a shot from that distance with that kind of precision and that kind of pace. It sent shock waves through the entire team and through all Americans fans across the country.”