This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
The sport of soccer and the United States have had a distant relationship for the most part. Soccer has always lagged behind football, baseball and basketball in terms of popularity in America. That isn’t to say the United States haven’t had moments of glory to celebrate in the beautiful game. At the 1950 World Cup, the United States shocked England 1-0. They wouldn’t appear in another World Cup until 1990. The US hosted the tournament in 1994. While most skeptics thought the tournament would be a disaster, the Americans proved them wrong by staging a well-run tournament filled with memorable moments. The US provided some of those moments, by getting out of the group stage, before bowing out to eventual champions Brazil.
Expectations were high in 1998. Some thought the US would be the sleeper team of the tournament. Drawn in a group with Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran, the Americans were expected to challenge for second place in Group F. Instead they were caught sleeping in France 98.
The first problem was the hype surrounding the team. The Americans couldn’t handle it. Kasey Keller was touted by some to be the best keeper in the world. Keller, who was playing for Leicester City at the time, was enjoying the media attention that he was receiving. In fact, he enjoyed it too much. While Keller wasn’t terrible, he didn’t look like the best keeper in the world. Off the pitch, Keller was arrogant and cocksure of his abilities. On the pitch, Keller looked nervous and unsure of anything.
Manager Steve Sampson also had difficulties. Before the first match against Germany, Sampson decided to use an odd 3-6-1 formation. Sampson’s plan was to stay conservative and pragmatic, by using quantity in the midfield to counteract the strong German midfield. That was thwarted in the 8th minute as Andreas Moller headed home a corner to give Germany the early advantage. While the Americans did defend admirably, it wasn’t enough to stop Jurgen Klinsmann’s ferocious strike in the 64th minute, to give Germany a 2-0 victory.
That loss forced the US to a must win against Iran. On paper, the Americans were expected to win. But this wasn’t an ordinary match by any stretch of the imagination. Politics and religion divided the two nations and this meant war to the Iranians. This was the match they had to win. America was “The Great Satan” to Iran. With the hostage crisis of 1980, the Iran-Contra affair in 1986, the Gulf War in 1991, these two nations would meet on the world stage not to settle a war, but to see who was the better side. No guns were needed. The Stade de Garland in Lyon was teeming with tension and excitement. Extra security was added so that no violence erupted in the stands.
Early on the Americans controlled possession, but couldn’t finish the chances around the net. Iran played a patient, pragmatic game looking to counter at a moment’s notice. Their patience paid off in the 40th minute as Hamid Estill headed home a lovely cross to give Iran the advantage. The second half continued the same story. The Americans pushed forward, desperate to find the equalizer. Iran sat back and defended. Waiting for their opportunity to counter. It wasn’t until the 84th minute when Iran struck the fatal blow. With the Americans going for goal, they left the back open. Mehdi Mahadavikia went in all alone, and slid one past Keller to give Iran a 2-0 lead. The Americans did strike back in the 87th minute as Brian McBride headed home a corner that just barely crossed the goal line. But it wasn’t enough. Iran secured the biggest victory in their history, while knocking out the hated Americans.
The US team was in shock. They were expected to win. Instead they had to lose to a team that thought it was more than a game. Meanwhile, Sampson was still juggling his lineup. Before the final match against Yugoslavia, Sampson decided to start Brad Friedel between the sticks, while sitting Keller on the bench. That plan backfired early as Slobodan Komijenovic opened the account just four minutes in. It was the only goal of the match, as the Americans just couldn’t muster up any finish.
So what happened? Besides the obvious fact the Americans couldn’t score, they just couldn’t handle the weighty expectations placed on them. Returnees such as Claudio Reyna, Eric Wynalda, Cobi Jones and Tab Ramos didn’t play nearly as well as they did in 1994. Keller wasn’t the best keeper in the world like he was touted. Sampson tinkered with the lineup too much, thus there was no chemistry on the pitch. Add everything up, and this was an awful side that competed in France in 1998.
Following the World Cup, changes were made. Sampson was let go and replaced by Bruce Arena. Friedel was deemed the number one keeper. The arrivals of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley brought a breath of fresh air. The US went into the 2002 World Cup with much lower expectations. It worked as the USA advanced to the quarterfinals. In 2010, the US finished top of the table in Group C, but were shocked in the round of 16 by Ghana. However, they did learn their lesson from the disaster that was 1998.
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