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.
WNYC Studios is a listener-supported producer of other leading podcasts, including On the Media, Radiolab, Death, Sex & Money, Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, Nancy and many others.
© WNYC Studios
Episode 1: The Dream (On) Team
At the end of the Dark Age of Soccer in the United States, when the world’s favorite sport was a punchline, there came a ray of light: The U.S. was chosen to host the 1994 World Cup. Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers introduces the underdog American team and its Star Wars cantina of characters, as they take center stage at soccer’s biggest event.
Episode 2: Steve
Meet Steve Sampson: the all-American regular guy who was plucked from obscurity to become interim head coach of the national squad. From living on a couch to leading the U.S. into battle, how an unlikely placeholder coach with no international experience proved his mettle by crushing the team’s longtime rival.
Episode 3: We’ll Always Have Paysandu
What do you get when you put 22 soccer players on a plane headed to South America? A labor standoff with their bosses, and a team turning into a band of brothers. Plus: Expectations soar after the 1995 Copa América and an encounter with Argentinian soccer god Diego Maradona.
Episode 4: Decisions, Decisions
Fresh off their impressive showing at the Copa America tournament, the U.S. team was feeling ready to take on the world. Or, more specifically, the World Cup. That was coming up in 1998 and the players were primed to begin the qualification run.
“We were a confident team,” remembers defender Marcelo Balboa. “When we walked out on the field, we knew that we could beat anybody in the world.”
But exactly who would walk out on that field was the question nagging at every player. Even if the team qualified for the World Cup, not every player would make the final 22-man roster. Even fewer would get starting roles.
The yearlong qualification process, thus, became a kind of ongoing audition for the World Cup roster, with Steve Sampson serving as casting director. And with his interim-coach days now behind him, he felt confident about making decisions, even bold ones that would not make everyone happy.
His first big move was to take the title of team captain away from the calm-under-pressure veteran Balboa and give it to the scrappy, tenacious Jersey boy, John Harkes. And this title didn’t come with “interim” before it. In fact, Harkes was known as “Captain for Life.”
The change didn’t put Balboa in the best frame of mind for the march toward the World Cup. To make it, the U.S. would have to survive an initial round of six games and qualify for a second round of 10 games, dubbed the “Hex.”
For players, this test is both physical and psychological. Stifling heat, waterlogged fields and in every city they traveled to — a stadium filled with people who truly hated them.
Balboa remembers a dummy dressed in a U.S. national team uniform that was swung from the top tier of a stadium with a noose around its neck. Jeff Agoos says a bag of urine was probably the worst thing thrown at him — though the C batteries hurt, too.
It was an added degree of difficulty for players who were battling other teams and trying to outshine one another for playing time.
The next big move by Sampson as he started to whittle the team down was to bench the team’s highest-profile player, the closest thing it had to a star, Alexi Lalas. “It sucked,” says Lalas. “Because I felt that you dance with the ones that brung you.” But the players weren’t the only ones with jobs on the line. U.S. Soccer was already courting the Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz as a replacement for Sampson.
By November 1997, there were just three games to go in the “Hex” and the American position was tenuous. With doubt setting in, the team arrived in Mexico City for a crucial game, knowing the U.S. had never beaten or even tied Mexico on their home turf.
Once inside The Estadio Azteca, the team would battle the triple threat of altitude, smog and the noise of 105,000 frenzied Mexican fans. The Americans played shorthanded after Jeff Agoos was sent off the field with an early red card. Yet, somehow, they tied, 0-0. Their performance was so impressive that the Mexican fans gave the American team a standing ovation as they left the field.
That game proved to the team they could win anywhere in the world. Just one week after Mexico, the U.S. qualified for the 1998 World Cup in a shutout game against Canada.
Cue: the celebration. The flowing champagne, giddy embraces and heartfelt speeches were all captured for posterity, including that moment Sampson threw an arm around his Captain for Life, John Harkes, and said to him, “Your third World Cup. Can you believe it?”
But not all the players celebrating in the locker room that day would actually get to play at the 1998 World Cup. Some of the team’s most experienced veterans would go to France, but never set foot on the field. Others wouldn’t make it there at all, including, of all people, John Harkes.
Just two months before the World Cup, the Captain for Life was captain no more.
Episode 5: Captain for Life
Two months before the 1998 World Cup, captain John Harkes is abruptly kicked off the national team. The reason for Harkes’ departure is kept under wraps. Twenty years later, the team opens up about what really happened.
Episode 6: Final Roster
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 before the World Cup. 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.
Amazing History of American Soccer
I followed the USMNT since Italia ‘90, only being able to spectate what was a third class sport in the US. With little media coverage through the MLS era, we had no idea what was going on in the training camps and locker rooms. Roger Bennet blows the lid off this pre-MLS era and delivers the scarcely heard stories from the USMNT golden generation. Excellent production, research and interviews.
Well Done 👍
Having been a teenager during this era, I found this incredibly entertaining as I remember the games only but none of the outside drama that surrounded this. Well done Rog
Episode 2 is missing?
Amazing podcast. Such an amazing peak into the 1998 USMNT! Have sent it to my whole family to listen.