By Kyle McCarthy
In few countries would a domestic title-winning manager with World Cup experience struggle to find a job coaching a first-division club.
Steve Sampson provided a reminder on Tuesday why the United States holds a spot in that group and why the incongruency likely won't change in his particular instance any time soon.
Sampson told the Associated Press that an alleged affair between then-U.S. captain John Harkes and the then-wife of Eric Wynalda contributed to his decision to drop Harkes from the U.S. squad for the 1998 World Cup. The confirmation occurred one day after Wynalda opened the door by dropping a big, fat hint when discussing the current imbroglio surrounding John Terry and Wayne Bridge on Fox Soccer Channel's Fox Football Fone-In.
Stating the truth after Wynalda's prompting isn't the issue here. Neither is Sampson's decision to drop Harkes from the World Cup squad. Both calls were probably correct given the circumstances. No, the issue is what the issue tends to be with Sampson. The man simply can't get out of his own way even when he's on the right side of things.
Sampson kept a divisive and pertinent secret to himself for 12 years, eschewing the facility of leaking it at the time and obtaining some much needed cover from the horde of critics that rightly barracked him for a host of questionable tactical and man-management decisions. At that time and in that particular instance, Sampson subjugated what was best for him and placed his team first. The choice to do so merits praise.
The decision, however, to use the just decision to take a curtain call in an attempt to favorably revise history years later reveals a considerably less laudable side. The not-so-subtle context to Sampson's contributions to the story: stop blaming me, it wasn't entirely my fault.
“Maybe now people will have a little bit more of an understanding as to why I made such a critical decision back in 1998,” Sampson told the AP in one of the two instances in which he discussed helping people “understand” the 1998 World Cup. “The last thing I wanted to do was drop John Harkes from the team because I really did believe that he was an outstanding leader on the field.”
The story itself would have rebuilt Sampson's reputation somewhat without his helpful nudge. Instead of letting the news cycle do its work to burnish his credentials, Sampson made the intent behind his revelation fairly well known, threw Roy Wegerle firmly under the bus more than a decade after Wegerle tossed Harkes under a moving train by spilling about the alleged affair and revealed a bit of himself – both good and bad – in the process. A moment that should have boosted Sampson's credibility ultimately came off as self-serving.
In some ways, the whole revived kerfuffle embodies Sampson's complex personality. A manager who produces impressive (1995 Copa America, 1-0 over Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup) and galling (1998 World Cup) results. A relatively successful coach ultimately reviled for one massive failure on the big stage and one unappealing stint with Los Angeles. An overachiever and an underachiever depending on the time and place. A prideful man selfless enough to take a public battering to cover up a scandal. A bilingual, Latin-influenced coach comfortable enough to take a job in Costa Rica but settled enough to make his preference for Southern California known when MLS teams came calling.
The best MLS fit for Sampson's complexity, incidentally, came calling not too long ago out of the blue. By most accounts, Sampson finished in the runner-up spot to his former assistant, Martin Vasquez, for the Chivas USA job. The gig would have catered to Sampson: close to home, plenty of Latin influence and relative obscurity to push those naysayers away. It didn't work out, leaving Sampson to run his soccer camps and wait for another opportunity.
Sampson's next chance likely won't arrive any time soon if the howls of derision surrounding his Chivas USA candidacy are any indication. Too many lingering memories of mediocre Galaxy teams and World Cup disappointments, too few lingering memories of the good times, too many quirky formations, too much pride, too much baggage and too much discomfort in his changing rooms. Is the situation fair considering the results on Sampson's CV? Maybe, maybe not.
Either way, Sampson's unexpected return to the spotlight on Tuesday offered a renewed understanding into why the situation is what it is.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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