Episode 8: The World Cup Begins

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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