Episode 2: Steve

After the 1994 World Cup, officials from the U.S. Soccer Federation were basking in the glow of a job well done. They had played host to the planet's biggest sporting event, set attendance records, turned a profit and set expectations high for the future of soccer in America. The U.S. men's team didn't win the World Cup. (Come on, let's be real.) Still, coach Bora Milutinovi? helped the team advance to the elimination round, where the Americans died with honor at the hands of Brazil. The Serbian-born Milutinovi? was known as a hired gun who coaxed surprising results from unremarkable teams. When he departed in search of his next challenge, U.S. Soccer was left with a taste for victory and an eye on the 1998 World Cup. All they needed was the right coach.   Hank Steinbrecher, then the Federation's secretary general, began an international search for a top-flight manager. And in an unusual move, the interim job was given to an American-bred assistant coach named Steve Sampson. At that time, America's top soccer job had been dominated by foreign-born coaches with international experience. There was a mystique to foreign coaches that Americans revered. Plus, Sampson had only head-coached at the collegiate level; he'd never managed professional soccer players. But Steinbrecher has a good explanation for why he turned to Sampson:  "He was there." Sampson took the job and ran with it. Unlike his predecessor who believed in a take-no-risks strategy, Sampson gave his players more freedom and instituted an aggressive, attack-minded strategy he called "forward-mindedness."  It was all about "playing to win, as opposed to playing not to lose." It was the American way. This new approach won him the loyalty of the players and the admiration of Steinbrecher, who liked the way Sampson infused on-field tactics with something more abstract: national identity. The team's first big challenge was the U.S. Cup, where the Americans would play Colombia, Nigeria and their regional nemesis, Mexico. In their 35 face-offs since 1934, Mexico had won 31 times. Plus, the stadium in Washington, D.C., was packed with fans rooting for the away team. It didn't take long for "forward-mindedness" to kick in. Just 174 seconds, in fact. The U.S. scored. And scored again. And again. And then in the second half, it scored again. Filled with what one player recalls as "joy and fearlessness," the team ? led by Steve Sampson ? crushed its archnemesis. Within 15 weeks, the word "interim" was removed from Steve Sampson's title.  

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