US World Cup History

The US and the 1998 World Cup

Poster for the 1998 World Cup in FranceOur series on the US at the World Cup continues with a look at the 1998 World Cup, hosted by France.

The lead up to the 1998 World Cup

The 1994 World Cup had been a resounding success for US soccer. Match attendance had reached a level that has yet to be surpassed in the World Cups that followed. Extensive television coverage had increased awareness of both soccer and the World Cup in US households. The US team had even played surprisingly well and had managed to advance to the Round of 16 where it lost to eventual tournament winners Brazil.

The momentum created by the World Cup was furthered when Major League Soccer debuted in 1996. Actually, delays in finding the necessary investors to get the league underway led many to wonder if the momentum gained as a result of the 1994 World Cup was being squandered. When it became clear that the league would not be able to start in 1995 as planned, Tab Ramos, the first to sign a MLS contract, expressed the fears of many when he said, “It seems like soccer has disappeared again.”

While it had been eight years from when it was announced that the US would host the 1994 tournament finals until the league played its first game, and the league was smaller than many had hoped for with more than a few major cities not being represented by teams, MLS nevertheless provided a home for American soccer players that had been unavailable to US players in the previous two World Cups, indeed, since the demise of the NASL in 1984.

Importantly, MLS was not created as a replica of the NASL. The single-entity structure that defined the league meant that owners bought into the success of the league as a whole rather than the success of an individual club. This, combined with a salary cap, meant that the kind of unsustainable buying sprees that had threatened the long-term survival of NASL clubs and ultimately the league itself would not be repeated. If players were not making wages similar to those in other professional US sport leagues they were, from a national team perspective, at least were getting regular, quality playing time. This, combined with an active schedule of friendlies and tournaments for the national team could only benefit the development of US players. Whether the national team would reap the early rewards of such benefits remained to be seen.

Who’s the coach?

Steve Sampson

The coach of the US 1994 World Cup, Bora Milutinovic, was gone in 1995 — the US Soccer Federation said he had resigned, he said he had been fired. Whatever the case, the federation tried to court several big-name managers including former Portugal manager Carlos Queiroz, and Carlos Alberto Parreira, coach of the 1994 World Cup winning Brazil team. While the search for a replacement went on, Steve Sampson, an assistant coach on the squad, became temporary head coach.

After leading the US team to a 4-0 victory over Mexico in the finals of the 1995 US Cup of the Americas and taking the team to the semifinals of the Copa America the same year where the US lost 1-0 to Brazil — this after defeating Chile, Argentina and Mexico along the way — Sampson was made head coach, becoming the first native-born, full-time coach in the history of the US national team.

The qualification campaign for the 1998 World Cup: the semi-finals

A poor showing in the 1996 US Cup, a tournament that was staged between 1992 and 2000 and featured the US and three guest teams, was followed by a players walkout over a dispute about bonus money and, only two weeks before the first round of CONCACAF qualifiers was to begin, Sampson was forced to field a squad of replacement players for a friendly against Peru in Lima on October 16. Unsurprisingly, the US lost 4-1. While the dispute would continue for months, the first team players returned in time for the first qualifier against Guatemala. While the US had received a bye and entered qualification in the semifinal round, it was a tough way to start what would be a 16-game qualification campaign. The fact that, along with the US, it’s group for the qualification semifinals consisted of four of the five teams that had participated in the CONCACAF finals to qualify for the 1990 World Cup only underscored the difficulty of the task ahead of the team.

The US opened its campaign when it met Guatemala at RFK Stadium in a bruising contest on November 3, 1996. After Eric Wynalda scored the first goal of the match in the 55th minute, Guatemala increased the tempo of their attack. Only a goal from Brian McBride sealed the 2-0 victory and that didn’t happen until the 89th minute.

A week later on November 10, the US met Trinidad & Tobago at Richmond Stadium in Virginia. Desperate for a win with only one point gained from their previous three qualifiers, the visitors had to attack and the game featured a great deal of open play. Still, almost an hour elapsed before the US scored its first goal off of a Thomas Dooley header. With Trinidad & Tobago pressing forward for an equalizer, the US got a second goal in the 85th minute from a shot by Wynalda and the match ended as another 2-0 for the US.

On November 24, the US traveled to Port-of-Spain to face Trinidad & Tobago in the return leg, the first US visit there since Paul Cagliuri’s goal in 1989 had secured qualification for the 1990 World Cup. With Trinidad & Tobago already eliminated following their loss in Richmond, it was a much different atmosphere than seven years before when both teams needed a win to qualify. The US scored the only goal of the match in the 34th minute when, as the home team continued to argue a foul, John Harkes took a quick free kick. Harkes’s kick found Joe-Max Moore, who then chipped Michael Maurice, the keeper who Cagliuri had beaten seven years earlier. An ACL tear suffered by Ramos in the second half of the match would put him on the sidelines for the US for nearly ten months.

Friedel-Lassiter panini 1998 WCA victory over Costa Rica on December 1 would mean that the US would clinch advancement to the final round of qualifiers. As the hostile crowd at Estadío Ricardo Saprissa rained coins, batteries, shoes, and bags of urine on the US players from the stands — “I’ve never been spat upon so much in my life,” said US keeper Brad Friedel — the Costa Rica team showered the US goal with shots.

Midway through the first half Paulo Wanchope poked home Costa Rica’s first goal off of a low cross from Hernan Medford. In the closing minutes of the match the score was 2-0 for Costa Rica before Cobi Jones scored a consolation goal in the 89th minute. Both Costa Rica and the US now had nine points. When Guatemala beat Trinidad & Tobago a week later to secure seven points the return leg took on a grave significance: if the US lost to Costa Rica at Stanford Stadium on December 14, and then lost to Guatemala, the US would drop to third in the group and not advance.

While the US did not dominate play in the return leg they did secure a victory and advancement to the next round of qualifiers. McBride pounced on a loose ball in the penalty area to make it 1-0 in the 16th minute. In the 60th minute Roy Lassiter volleyed home the rebound from a shot by Alexi Lalas to make it 2-0. Costa Rica got a goal in the closing minutes of play but they were unable to do more.

The match against Guatemala on December 21 was the first time the US had played a qualifier having already made it to the next round. For Guatemala, a victory would mean that they still had a slim chance of qualifying. But because of a fatal stampede before a qualifier against Costa Rica in October at an overcrowded Estadio Mateo Flores that left at least 83 dead and more than 140 injured, Guatemala’s remaining home games were played at neutral sites, in this case at Estadio Cuscatlan in El Salvador. The recently naturalized Preki Radosalvjevic scored the first US goal in the seventh minute after he stripped a defender of the ball to go one-on-one with the keeper. Guatemala responded with two goals before Frankie Hejduk broke free in the penalty area off of a through ball from Preki to tie the match. The game ended in a 2-2 draw, not that it mattered for Guatemala: Costa Rica had beaten Trinidad & Tobago the same day to advance to the next round.

The qualification campaign for the 1998 World Cup: the finals

In the final group of six teams the US would face Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Jamaica and Mexico. The first match against Jamaica at National Stadium in Kingston on March 2, 1997, ended as a scoreless draw. Coached by the Brazilian Rene Simoes and with a squad filled out by players of Jamaican descent who were playing in England, Jamaica was a markedly improved team and by all accounts the better team on that day. Keeper Kasey Keller was key in helping to secure an away point for the US.

Pope-Keller 1998 WC paniniThe US next faced Canada on March 16 at Stanford Stadium. Canada had historically been one of the reasons for the US World Cup appearance drought between 1950 and 1990. But, in the seventeen years since the two teams had last met for a qualifier, Canadian soccer had declined. Though the final scoreline might suggest otherwise, the US didn’t actually dominate the match. After a Wynalda goal in the 8th minute was followed by Eddie Pope’s goal in the 14th minute, they didn’t need too. Earnie Stewart’s goal in the 89th minute completed the 3-0 victory.

On March 23 the US again faced Costa Rica. The fans at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa were on good behavior this time with the batteries and bags of urine of the previous meeting being replaced by streamers and confetti. Medford scored first for Costa Rica in the 10th minute off of a through ball from Ronald Gomez. Wynalda equalized in the 24th minute with a long, hooking shot from outside of the penalty area. Gomez hit a Costa Rica free kick to Mauricio Solis who blasted a shot past Keller in the 32nd minute. In the 68th minute Lassiter notched an equalizer when he intercepted a square pass to dribble around a defender and deliver a sharp shot into the back of the net. In the 76th minute, Lopes scored the gamewinner for Costa Rica. With three matches down and only four points gained, things were suddenly looking grim for the US.

And Mexico was next.

The US versus Mexico, round one: things are looking up

Just as had been the case in Costa Rica, when the US hosted Mexico at Foxboro Stadium on April 20, 1997, they twice had to come from behind to equalize. But this time they did not give up a late goal and actually looked to be more likely to score. Mexico scored first just 39 seconds after the opening whistle when Carlos Hermosillo leapt in front of a Kasey Keller clearance. The ball deflected off of Hermosillo’s forehead, bounced off the ground and over Keller’s head into goal. Eddie Pope equalized for the US in the 35th minute only for Luis Hernandez to put Mexico ahead in the 54th minute. The US equalizer was the result of an own goal by Nicolas Ramirez in the 74th minute, perhaps a fitting end given the freakish nature of the first Mexico goal. While the US pressed for a late victory after US coach Steve Sampson replaced two defenders with attackers, they were unable to score. All things considered, taking a point from Mexico was not a bad result.

The draw with Mexico was followed by a 1-1 draw against El Salvador at Estadio Cuscatlan on June 29. Roy Lassiter scored for the US in the 52nd minute when he volleyed home a cross from John Harkes. El Salvador equalized in the 60th minute with an awkward goal from Raul Diaz Arce, who managed to mishit a left-footed shot off of his right leg into the net. The US nearly scored in the closing seconds when another Lassiter volley glanced off of the crossbar but had to settle for a point on the road. With half of the final round of qualifiers over, the US was in third place with six points, behind Mexico with eleven points and Costa Rica with seven. Canada, El Salvador and Jamaica each had five points.

On September 7, the US faced Costa Rica in Portland at Civic Stadium, now known as Providence Park and the home of the Portland Timbers. Playing on a temporary grass surface in front of raucous crowd of US supporters, the US dominated play on the slippery pitch, but Costa Rica’s defense held strong. Finally, in the 79th minute, the US got the goal they needed off of a powerful shot Tab Ramos strike from 25 yards out. It was his his first game for the US since his injury against Trinidad and Tobago the previous November.

On October 3 the US hosted Jamaica at RFK Stadium in a match that many probably thought would be a sure win. But the Jamaica team was on fire and, in the end, the US was fortunate to once again secure a 1-1 draw. Jamaica had the US on its heels for much of the game before Eric Wynalda converted a controversial penalty kick in the 59th minute for a handball that replays showed had clearly occurred outside of the box. Moments later, Paul Hall defected a square pass on the US backline to the feet of Deon Burton who promptly scored for Jamaica. Suddenly, the next match, against Mexico at Estadio Azteca, took on an unexpected importance for the US.

The US versus Mexico, round two: things are looking better still

When the teams met on November 2 at Estadio Azteca, most expected Mexico to walk away with three points. After all, the previous seventeen visits the US had made to Mexico had resulted in seventeen defeats. To make matters worse, Ramos had suffered another injury, Earnie Stewart and Kasey Keller were also hurt, and Claudio Reyna was suspended for the match. But the dynamic play of the US in the opening minutes of the game helped to take the nearly 115,000 fans out of the contest. Even when US defender Jeff Agoos was sent off in the 32nd minute for a retaliatory elbow, the US continued to attack. The US turned to defensive play in the second half and by now the Mexico fans were booing their own team. Against all expectation the match ended in a scoreless draw, and this with a US side made up entirely of players from the MLS. While Mexico thus clinched a trip to the World Cup, the hopes of the US remained alive. After the match the coach of the Mexico team, Bora Milutinovic, the man who had led the US team in the 1994 World Cup, was fired.

Wegerle-Henderso 1998 WC paniniWhen the US traveled to Swangard Stadium in British Columbia to face an already eliminated Canada on November 9, they knew that a victory combined with a ties or wins by Mexico and Jamaica over Costa Rica and El Salvador would mean that the US would qualify for the World Cup. Reyna scored first for the US in the fifth minute when, after receiving a cross from Roy Wegerle, he was able to spin away from his defender and send home a shot from just inside the box. Wegerle scored two more goals in the 80th and the 90th minute and the match ended as a 3-0 victory for the US.

The match against El Salvador on November 16 at Foxboro Stadium was meaningless for the US but if the visitors could win, and Jamaica lost at home to Mexico, El Salvador would be tied for third and qualify on goal difference. Sampson sat every player carrying a yellow card who would be suspended for the first game in France if they received a yellow in this game. Even without many of its star players, the US easily won 4-2 with 2 goals from Brian McBride and single tallies from Chris Henderson and Preki.

The US had finished its 16 game qualification campaign with a 8-2-6 record, it’s only defeats coming on the road to Costa Rica at the notorious Estadio Ricardo Saprissa. It was a record that obscured some tense moments, with the US uncertain of its future until wins in the next-to-last games of the semifinal and final qualification rounds.

Warming up for France

The team would play 12 games in the five months before the start of the 1998 World Cup, including games at the 1998 Gold Cup, which commenced in February.

On January 24, 1998, a week before the start of the Gold Cup, the US played Sweden in a friendly at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. A Roy Wegerle goal in the second minute proved to be enough and the US was the 1-0 winner.

The 1998 Gold Cup was staged in three cities, in Miami, Los Angeles, and in Oakland. The US was drawn in Group C along with Costa Rica and Cuba, and played all of its group games on the West Coast. On February 1 at the Oakland Coliseum, the team breezed by Cuba, winning 3-0 with goals from Wegerle, Eric Wynalda, and a penalty kick goal from Joe-Max Moore. All of the goals came between the 55th and 76th minute. On February 7, again in Oakland, the US faced Costa Rica. Eddie Pope opened the scoring in the 7th minute before Costa Rica equalized in the 56th minute. In the 78th minute, Preki tallied for the US and the team finished at the top of its group to advance to the semifinals with the 2-1 win. There they would face Brazil, who had been invited to participate in the tournament by CONCACAF and, to the surprise of all, had finished second in Group A behind Jamaica, who had joined the tournament after Canada withdrew, and with whom Brazil had played a scoreless draw to begin group play before drawing 1-1 with Guatemala and defeating El Salvador 4-0.

The last time the US had faced Brazil was in the semifinals of the 1996 Gold Cup. Actually, the US had faced the Brazil U-23 team (clubs don’t have to release players for games in which the national team is a guest), losing 1-0 after a Marcelo Balboa own-goal in the 79th minute. 1-0 losses to Brazil were becoming something of a habit for the US after the team was defeated by the same scoreline in the semifinals of the 1995 Copa America and the Round of 16 at the 1994 World Cup. At the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on February 10, it would be the US who were the 1-0 winners thanks to a 65th minute goal from Preki. Incredibly, only 12,298 spectators were on hand to see the win.

It would be a different story when the US faced Mexico in the finals, also at the Los Angeles Coliseum, on February 15. This time 91,255 largely Mexico supporters were on hand. The US lost 1-0.

Harkes and Wynalda in happier days

Harkes and Wynalda in happier days

The loss to Mexico proved to be the start of a three-game losing streak. On February 21, the US lost 2-0 to the Netherlands at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Four days later, the US faced Belgium at the Roi Baudouin in Brussels on February 25, losing 2-0.

Roger Allaway and Colin Jose write in The United States Tackles the World Cup that the losses to the Netherlands and Belgium “apparently convinced coach Sampson that the personnel and tactics that he was using weren’t enough to accomplish much in France.” While the US managed to draw 2-2 with Paraguay on March 14 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego — Paraguay scored first before US took the lead with goals from Chad Deering and Balboa, only for Paraguay to equalize from the penalty spot in the 76th minute — Sampson soon announced that John Harkes, whom he had been trying to convert into a defender, had been dropped from the US roster. (Twelve years after the 1998 World Cup, Sampson acknowledged the real reason he had left Harkes at home: Harkes had been having an affair with Wynalda’s wife.)

On April 22 at Ernst-Happel Stadion in Vienna, Sampson unveiled a new 3-6-1 formation. The change seemed to pay off with the US winning 3-0 after a 54th minute goal from Frankie Hedjuk and goals from Wynalda in the 89th minute, and Reyna in stoppage time, sealed a 3-0 win, the team’s first since its defeat of Brazil at the Gold Cup. But if the new formation helped to prevent goals being allowed, it didn’t seem to help with goals being scored. On May 16 at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, the US drew 0-0 with Macedonia. Things seemed to be looking up after goals from Earnie Stewart and Tab Ramos in the 2-0 defeat of Kuwait at Portland Civic Stadium on May 24. But the win was followed by another scoreless draw, this time at RFK Stadium on May 30 against Scotland in the team’s final game in the US before it left for France.

The US at the 1998 World Cup

The US finished its series of 12 games before the World Cup with a 6-3-3 record, and the positive momentum that followed from starting the year on a four-game winning streak must have felt like a distant memory by the time the US left for France. While the team had rallied behind Sampson before the interim tag had been removed from his title, his increasingly micro-managing coaching style had begun to cause concern with veteran members of the team. The shocking dismissal of Harkes from the squad, , the most celebrated US player of the day and a player that Sampson had at one time refereed as “captain for life,” was soon followed by the absence of World Cup veterans like Balboa, Lalas, and Wynada from the final warmup games. Sampson clearly felt his tactics vindicated when the  3-6-1 formation the fielded against Austria resulted in a 3-0 victory. And while such self-belief would be necessary if the US was to advance from a World Cup group that included Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia, whether the team shared the convictions of its coach was far from certain.

USA 0-2 Germany

When the US faced Germany on June 15 at the Parc des Princes in Paris, its lineup featured seven players who were making their World Cup debut. This despite the fact that 12 of the 22 players on the roster were veterans of earlier World Cup squads. (Kasey Keller had been on the 1990 team, and Joe-Max Moore on the 1994 team, but both had not played. Two of the three substitutions that were made in the game would also be World Cup debuts.)

Sampson believed that Claudio Reyna would be the key to the team’s attack but Germany marked him out of the game and dominated possession in the first half. Eight minutes after the opening whistle some sloppy defense for the US on a corner kick led to the first goal for Germany when Jurgen Klinsmann out-leapt two defenders at the far post to head Olaf Thon’s service in front of goal. Andreas Moller then headed the ball to beat Mike Burns, who was guarding the near post.

The US came out on the attack in the second half and for the first fifteen minutes seemed likely to score an equalizer. Frankie Hejduk, who had come on to replace Burns, nearly scored in the 52nd minute with a diving header, but the US attack soon petered out. Germany put the game to bed in the 65th minute when Klinsmann beat US defender Thomas Dooley for a header in the penalty area. He then controlled the ball with his chest, settled, and promptly shot to make it 2-0 for Germany. David Wangerin suggests in Soccer in a Football World that, while the scoreline was different from the 5-1 loss that the US suffered against Czechoslovakia in their opening game in 1990, “in some ways it reeked of the same naivety, the belief that slavish devotion to the whiteboard could triumph over international nous…Unfortunately, the veterans who were called up had largely let the side down.”

The US squad that faced Germany

The US squad that faced Germany

USA 1-2 Iran

Some sporting events take on an importance much larger than the game itself. The US match against Iran on June 21 at Stade de Gerland in Lyon was one such event. While commentators speculated about the political importance of the match — and soccer boosters worried about the consequences of a US defeat for the prospects of the game in America — Sampson tinkered his line up. Burns, Stewart and Wynalda started on the bench and Sampson deployed a 3-5-2 formation. The US were favorites and the new formation produced several chances. But the US simply couldn’t finish. When Hamid Estili placed a looping header over Keller in the 40th minute, the US reaction was one of shock.

In the second half, as Iran pulled back to defend, the US struck the post four times but was unable to find the net. Throwing everyone forward, their frustration turned to despair when, in the 84th minute, Mehdi Mahdavikia started a run to receive the ball ten yards into the American half with no one to beat but Keller. A diving header from Brian McBride cut the score in half in the 87th minute. But the frantic scramble for another goal in the remaining time was fruitless and, with the 2-1 loss, the US was out of contention to advance to the next round of the tournament.

To the surprise of some, the mood between US and Iran fans both before and after the match was festive rather than hostile.

The US and Iran teams before their group stage game

The US and Iran teams before their group stage game

USA 0-1 Yugoslavia

Given US involvement in the conflict in the Balkans at the time, the final group match at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes on June 25 was another one weighted with political overtones. Meanwhile, conflict within the US team was beginning to spill out into the press. Lalas, who would not play a single minute in the tournament, told reporters, “everybody’s ready to explode.” Sampson once again changed the line up and this time US produced what many considered their best performance of the tournament. But Slobodan Komljenovic’s goal from Brad Friedel’s parry of a Sinisa Mihajlovic’s free kick in the 4th minute proved to be enough and the US lost 1-0.

The US had failed to advance past the group stage, losing all three of its matches and scoring only one goal. Of the 32 teams in the tournament, the US had finished dead last.

Yugoslavia would be defeated 2-1 in the Round of 16 by the Netherlands. Germany would beat Mexico 2-1 and lose 3-0 to Croatia. Croatia would be defeated 2-1 by France. France would defeat Brazil 3-0 to win the 1998 World  Cup.

After the 1998 World Cup

With the US out of the World Cup, the acrimony felt by many players toward Steve Sampson began to be expressed without restraint. Wangerin writes,

‘They stunk. And they hated their coach,’ was the pithy summary of one Associated Press writer, and as the players packed their bags their hatred seemed to intensify. ‘We were naive to think an inexperienced coach would see the value of experienced players,’ concluded Wynalda, who only once appeared in the starting line-up. ‘We should never let this happen again.’ Ramos insisted he had played his last match for the team with Sampson in charge. His assessment of the manager’s competence—’as he became more of a coach, we became less of a team’—drew the threat of a fine from the USSF.

Ramos, who saw a total of 78 minutes of playing time at the World Cup, said further, “From the beginning, this whole World Cup has been a mess…I blame the coaches for the losses.”

Sampson remained unapologetic about leaving Harkes at home, or sitting veteran players, and suggested that few US players were ready to play at the level of the World Cup. Given that all but four of the national team’s outfield players were based in MLS, some wondered what this said about the quality of the three-year old league. Sampson resigned four days after the loss to Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, it was time for the US to regroup after its dismal performance. First off, the team needed a new coach and they found him in Bruce Arena. In his first nine months in charge, Arena lead the US to two victories over Germany, one over Argentina, and a third place finish at the 1999 Confederations Cup in Mexico. Qualifications for the next World Cup began in July, 2000. It would be a long road.

June 15, 1998: USA 0-2 Germany

June 21, 1998: USA 1-2 Iran (complete game)

June 25, 1998: USA 0-Yugoslavia (complete game)

An earlier version of this article was originally published in two parts on May 20 and May 21, 2010


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Great World Cup articles as always. I really remember that Iran loss and how embarrassed I was. They played fairly well against Germany and should have beaten Iran.
    I also never realized (I was 17 in 1998) how much of an A-hole Sampson was as a manager. Wow. Nowak-like. Haha

  2. This was by far the worst World Cup for us. Every game was more of a let down. Thank God it didn’t destroy the sport in this country, but they tried. So important for everyone to remember that. I remember Jim Rome (ass) saying how he won’t cover soccer because they were so bad and don’t deserve coverage considering they finished dead last. A very bad time for soccer. At least the final was amazing!

  3. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Don’t forget that Harkes was booted off the team for sleeping with Wynalda’s wife. There were alot of internal issues on that team that can’t all be put at the foot of Sampson.

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