American FiascoJoin 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 Freakonomics Radio, Death, Sex & Money, On the Media and many more.
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 Freakonomics Radio, Death, Sex & Money, On the Media and many more.
Bonus Episode with Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics Radio
After chronicling the rise and fall of the 1998 U.S. national team, Roger Bennett — like Marty McFly in Back to the Future — jumps into the DeLorean, sets the coordinates for present day, and blasts through space and time to return to 2018. Where he learns the Americans are once again mired in a World Cup fiasco. Fortunately, the smoking-hot time machine has returned him to a studio at WNYC, where Roger sits down to talk with Freakonomics Radio host Stephen Dubner about the 2018 World Cup, including the U.S. team's failure to qualify for the tournament. They also deliver a primer on all the compelling drama that will unfold in Russia over the next month, including Lionel Messi's quest for vindication with Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo's eight-pack, and the Icelandic underdogs who swear they have Viking blood coursing through their veins (but are also being coached by a part-time dentist.) Plus, Roger learns that Dubner, a soccer fan who hosts the podcast Footy for Two with his son Solomon, fell in love with the sport at his alma mater, Appalachian State University. The Division I upstart Mountaineers, as it turns out, were coached by none other than Hank Steinbrecher, the former U.S. Soccer executive and all-around soccer patriot who plays a key role throughout American Fiasco. Later, with the announcement of the 2026 World Cup host coming this week, Roger weighs in on whether the joint bid by the U.S., Mexico and Canada has a shot. And, he predicts that — somehow, some way — the United States will win the World Cup in 2018.
Bonus Episode with Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics Radio
What do you do after you've just crashed and burned in a World Cup? That's what the entire 1998 U.S. Men's National Team was asking themselves, including the coach. The day after the team lost to Yugoslavia in its third and final World Cup game, Steve Sampson told the Washington Post that he wanted to remain head coach and that he wouldn't let a few disgruntled players dictate his future. He even threatened to fine players who had aired their grievances in the press. But Sampson was smart enough to know he was headed for the exit. His boss, U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg, asked Steve to meet him for breakfast in Paris first thing Monday. Sampson remembers: "I offered my resignation because I felt it was the right thing to do because I had lost three games in a world championship. I didn't want Alan to feel as if he needed to fire me. Before he could get it out of his mouth, I offered to him to resign from the national team. Most of the players returned to the U.S., eager to forget the painful losses in France. But for Frankie Hejduk, the end of the World Cup marked a new beginning. He was actually kind of — elated. Amid all the drama swirling around the U.S. national team, Hejduk and his agent negotiated a contract to play with Bayer Leverkusen, a top-flight German team. This California surfer and reluctant soccer star was headed to the big time in Europe. "It's crazy how that works out, right?" Hejduk remarks to Roger Bennett in American Fiasco. "It ended up changing my life in probably the best way ever because I wouldn't be here with you, doing interviews, I wouldn't be fishing. I wouldn't be hitting golf balls off my back deck." Hejduk's excitement, of course, was the exception. Most of the team returned to the U.S., eager to forget their humiliating defeat in France. More than anything, 1998 was supposed to be the year that this group of guys, playing this game, finally won over the great uncaring American audience to establish the game they loved as a truly major league sport. "The boys had blown it. We had really lost of lot of respect from the world and internationally," says striker Eric Wynalda. "Not until Brandi Chastain saved it in 1999, did we have a good feeling about the sport." That was the year Chastain won the World Cup for the U.S. women's team in a dramatic penalty shootout. Soccer was once again breakfast table conversation, because Chastain and Mia Hamm were plastered all over Wheaties boxes. It's been 20 years since the men finished last at the World Cup. The petty grievances, the outsized vanities and the rank embarrassment have mostly faded away. Since then, soccer has arrived in the United States. Dozens of leagues are broadcast on American television. EA Sports FIFA isn't just a best-selling video game; it's an educational tool that is introducing generations to the rules, teams and stars of the sport. International icons Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi regularly poll in Americans' top ten favorite sports heroes, outranking their N.F.L., M.L.B. and N.B.A. counterparts. This past season, 72,000 fans packed a stadium in Atlanta and set a Major League Soccer attendance record. The two previous records were held by, wait for it, Atlanta. And today, though Americans were embarrassed that the U.S. men failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup, worry not. The U.S. Women will — let's pray — redeem us once again at the 2019 World Cup. After all, they've won three World Cups to date. As for the men's team, hope still burns in the hearts of American soccer evangelists and 1998 survivors like Hank Steinbrecher. "We're Americans," Steinbrecher tells Roger in the final moments of the podcast. "Let's climb Everest. Let's go to the moon. Let's cure cancer. Go for it. Let's win a World Cup."
So far, the 1998 World Cup was going pretty badly for the U.S. Men's national team. They'd just played the Germans, losing 2-0 when they'd been counting on a tie. The next two games, against Iran and Yugoslavia respectively, now mattered more than ever. First up, Iran. As of game day — June 21, 1998 — Iran had been America's sworn enemy for the past 20 years or so. Memories of the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran still made American blood boil. Even the White House was concerned, calling the secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Hank Steinbrecher, to confirm the U.S. was favored to win. And they were. The Iranians had also lost their opening game. In fact, Iran had never won a World Cup match. Most of their players had not played outside of their own country. For the first time in this World Cup, the U.S. team was not the underdog. They were determined to get as many points as they could. They needed a win before they faced the formidable Yugoslavian team. So for the Iran game, Sampson shifted the team's strategy to all-out attack. He made five lineup changes — that's essentially half the team — and abandoned the complex 3-6-1 formation he'd employed for the past two months. Instead, Sampson organized the team in a 3-5-2 setup that uses two forwards. He went a step further, slotting in an additional forward (Joe-Max Moore) in what was normally a key defensive midfield role. Sure, the team would be vulnerable to counterattacks, but that was Sampson's whole point: attack first, attack again, then keeping attacking. Three minutes into the game, 26-year-old forward Brian McBride came close to scoring a header in his first-ever World Cup. The Americans had set the tone: they meant business. They continued to outplay Iran during most of the first half, except in one key way: The U.S. could not put the ball in the net. After McBride hit the post, Claudio Reyna did the same. The Americans were doing everything right — just an inch off the mark. But in the 41st minute, Iranian midfielder Hamid Estili did not miss with a perfect header into the far corner of the goal. The U.S. returned to the locker room down 1-0. Press officer Jim Froslid recalls that the locker room was devoid of positive energy. "You're 1-nil down. You're dominating. This is a moment where you know you can come back. Right?" McBride says, "I don't remember anybody getting fired up and screaming at each other or yelling something positive. No." The U.S. continued to play dominating football, but the goals just wouldn't come. Meanwhile, Sampson's all-out attack strategy had left the American side of the field vulnerable. Iran's Mehdi Mahdavikia launched a one-man counterattack in the 84th minute, leaving a defender in the dust and rocketing the ball off U.S. goalkeeper Kasey's fingers. McBride finally scored a goal four minutes later — the only goal the U.S. would notch in the entire tournament. The Americans could not equalize. They lost the game, 2-1, ensuring that the team would not advance past the group stage. The World Cup was effectively over. After the game, the players went back to blasting Sampson in the press. Jeremy Schaap of ESPN was there that night and he remembers it "as the darkest place I've ever seen in sports." Dark indeed, the day a team has blown its chance at World Cup glory. Four days later, the U.S. had to play Yugoslavia, but the game was a formality at this point. And again, they lost. This time one-nil. The U.S. Men's national team had made a fool of American soccer in front of the whole world. A reckoning was coming.
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.
When the U.S. men's national team departed JFK International Airport for France on June 5, 1998, many players assumed they were headed straight into the heart of World Cup action. Fourteen hours later, they arrived in the middle of nowhere. It's common for elite national teams to train in isolation during the final days before the World Cup. Argentina was holed up in the town of L'Etrat, in the Loire Valley. The English were hiding out on a golf resort an hour west of Nantes. U.S. head coach Steve Sampson wanted the same thing for his players. "We were staying at the Chateau de Pizay, in one of the finest hotels in the world," he tells Roger Bennett in episode 5 of American Fiasco. "We had a five-star chef preparing meals for these players. We had a magnificent training ground. France, Brazil and England all stayed there and I felt it was good enough for our national team." However, the Chateau de Pizay was surrounded by 130 acres of beaujolais vineyards in Saint-Jean-d'Ardières, four hours away from Paris. Defender Marcelo Balboa remembers his frustration. "You're like, 'We're isolated up in a mountain, in a vineyard where I have to ride a bike into town 10 minutes just to get out and go do something.' We were like, 'Why are we being isolated? Why are we being secluded? Why are we being put by ourselves out here?'" Jeremy Schaap, then an ESPN reporter embedded with the team, explains: "Look, mostly these were guys who were expecting something out of the World Cup akin to what Olympic athletes get out of the Olympic Village." "We wanted this to be ridiculously special for the players," says Sampson. "It cost the Federation a lot more money than they anticipated." But his players just couldn't — or wouldn't — hack it. In the Chateau, their gilded prison, the inmates were going a little batty. "It looked great from the outside," remarks forward Eric Wynalda. But inside? "It was Hotel California, man, and we were inside those walls trying to figure out how we could just get through the next day." Everyone had their way of coping. High-stakes poker games were popular. Midfielder Radosavljevic Preki soon amassed enough cash to fill a sock he slung over his shoulder. ("Most of it was mine," notes Wynalda.) Once, press officer Jim Froslid saw a pot that was about half his salary. Needless to say, he didn't join the game. Forward Brian McBride read the New Testament cover to cover for the first (and only) time. Midfielder Brian Maisonneuve told a reporter he was reading les pages jaunes ... the yellow pages. Meanwhile, veteran midfielders Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart were spotted having conversations with the local ducks. Each of these men, everyone on that team, had devoted his professional and personal life to this moment. They'd all made enormous sacrifices to be here, had beaten out every other American to make the squad, and then competed against each other to lock down starting roles. They'd desperately tried to impress their coach even when they did not understand what he wanted from them. They had lost their captain. And now, they felt they were losing their minds. On June 14th, 1998, the first kick-off was just a night away. Come morning, the U.S. would battle Germany on the football field. The whole world would be watching.
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.
Bonus Episode with Big Cat (Dan Katz) of Barstool Sports
Does soccer deserve our love? If there's one person host Roger Bennett has to convince, it's Dan "Big Cat" Katz of Barstool Sports. The self-described "epitome of the American sports fan" argues, "What's more American than hating soccer?"
Bonus Episode with Big Cat (Dan Katz) of Barstool Sports
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.
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.
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.