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Awkward Moments: Steve Sampson and Alexi Lalas

May 30th, 2009 · 7 Comments · soccer

I will be citing Steve Sampson on a variety of topics, here and elsewhere, over the next week or so, but here is one more tidbit from my conversation with him that I will put up here and now.

We were talking about the 1998 World Cup, when Sampson was coach of the U.S. national team that (all together now) “finished dead last”  in the tournament. (A phrase Sampson must have grown weary of a decade ago. As if finishing 17th but still not making the knockout stage would have been somehow better. Or finishing 25th or 30th … I mean, critics are using tiebreakers in reverse to come up with that last-in-the-tournament thing.)

Anywho …  that 1998 U.S. team pretty much imploded after its second defeat, which assured its elimination. Sampson had, unwisely, I’m sure he would concede now, taken with him to France a handful of malcontents he should have left behind. Namely, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos and Preki Radosavljevic. And one of those would come back to bite Sampson in a way that impacted his career.

Alexi Lalas was (and is) a guy not afraid to speak his mind. He had been a regular in the 1994 World Cup, a savvy but fairly wooden central defender with all the red hair and the goatee. He was something of a cult hero, with a back story that included a rock band, didn’t it? Oh, he was hip. Yes. And by 1998, he had spent a year in Italy’s Serie A, too, at Padova, so his opinion of himself was pretty high. Not that he needed Italy to get there.

Turns out that in the run-up to France ’98, Sampson had looked at his team and decided a radical 3-6-1 formation might be worth a try. Given the talent on hand. The key to the thing was having two wide midfielders who could run forever and would instantly jump to the attack but also track back immediately to bolster the defense, and he thought he had a couple guys perfect for that role in Cobi Jones and Frankie Hejduk. And in the sense of their work rate and conditioning, he was right.

So, Sampson tried the 3-6-1 in an April friendly at Austria, and the Americans won 3-0 in Vienna. A huge victory.  Because it was in Europe, where the U.S. never wins against European teams … and because it came after a run of results that included home friendly defeats vs. Mexico (1-0) and Holland (2-0) and a tie vs. Paraguay (2-2), plus a 2-0 loss at Belgium. Bang. He tries the 3-6-1, the Yanks trash Austria. Hmm.

So, Sampson decided he was going to France with the 3-6-1. He was derided ahead of time as being a silly American trying to invent a game that he knew very little about, but what did he have to lose? What were the odds the U.S. was going to get out of a group that included Germany and Yugoslavia? Microscopic? Zero?

And that 3-6-1 decision was an issue for Lalas because the formation included only one central defender, and it couldn’t be someone as plodding as Alexi Lalas. It was going to be Thomas Dooley.

So, Lalas was out of the lineup. He wasn’t happy. When the Americans lost 2-0 to Germany, which wasn’t exactly a shock to touts across the globe, and 2-1 to Iran, Lalas popped off. He said the scheme was stupid, that Sampson was, essentially, a fool, etc. Sampson was not amused. One of those insult to injury things.

He responded by leaving Lalas on the bench for the final, meaningless match against Yugoslavia (though a goal might have meant the U.S. didn’t finish dead last) …  and as I recall, Lalas was literally the only guy on the 20-man squad not to get on the field, in France ’98. Even Ramos and Preki, who also criticized Sampson, got to play.

Lalas never again played for the national team. Even when Sampson was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena.

Anyway, the world turns … and when Lalas’s career ends with San Jose in 2003, AEG somehow decides Alexi Lalas is management material and jumps him straight into the general manager job there with the Earthquakes. Lalas in 2005 moved to New York where he was GM of the MetroStars, who didn’t exactly tear it up. But AEG still liked him and rescued him from New York when the club was sold to the Red Bull guys in Austria and in April of 2006 installed him as GM in … yes, Los Angeles … where Steve Sampson is the coach and the concept of “revenge is sweet” is in the minds of everyone who remembers Sampson, Lalas and France ’98.

“I remember getting the call from (AEG exec) Tim Leiweke,” Sampson said, referring to the news that Lalas was now his boss. “I immediately called my wife and told her I figured I had about four weeks.

“I think it turned out it was about six.”

Lalas then fired Sampson. The club was 2-8-1 at the time, and not playing well, but the club had just won the 2005 MLS Cup, and maybe it deserved a bit more of a shot to turn things around.

Lalas would be a saint if he didn’t still have a bit of a problem with the guy who, essentially, ended his national team career back in 1998. And has anyone ever said Alexi is a saint? Didn’t think so.

Anyway, yes, one of those awkward moments. When one of your problems students comes back and is your boss. It’s not going to turn out well. No way.

Lalas lasted two-plus turbulent seasons in Los Angeles before he was fired in August of 2008. He was in the middle of the David Beckham signing, and got quoted in Europe a lot, and was part of the whole AEG thing about making the Galaxy a “global brand,” which is bloody difficult when you’re one of the worst teams in MLS. Which the Galaxy was, under Lalas.

But, turns out Lalas has, so far, ended Sampson’s career. Sampson hasn’t coached in a professional setting since Lalas canned him, back in 2006. Sampson runs soccer academies in southern and central California. Lalas now does commentary for MLS.net. I don’t think they exchange Christmas cards.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // May 30, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    This is great stuff, dealing with two of the bigger flops in recent U.S. soccer history. It will be very interesting to see what Sampson has to say. He did an awful job coaching the 98 squad which had more talent than it showed. The mention of “3-6-1” still sends many long-time U.S. national team fans into a fury. In addition, the Galaxy’s MLS Cup win seemed like a fluke, won in spite of Sampson’s constant lineup tinkering. On the other hand, as a GM, Lalas nearly wrecked three MLS franchises. He’s fun to listen to as a commentator, but for the good of the league I hope no one ever hires him to run another MLS team.

  • 2 David Lassen // May 30, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    I’m under no illusions I’m particularly qualified to talk soccer, but as someone who follows the Kings, I have to say that Lalas resume seems to me to be the perfect summation of AEG’s ineptitude as an operator of sports franchises.

  • 3 Dennis Pope // Jun 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Lalas’ mouth has worn out his welcome everywhere but ESPN, which seems logical considering he’s nothing but a talking head. They appreciate that in Bristol, Conn.; Berman, Scott, Reilly, et al.

  • 4 Tony in Quakeland // Jun 2, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Wow…you did the impossible. I felt a twinge of sympathy for Steve Sampson! I may pull a pin or two out of his voodoo doll.

    Not all of them, but a couple.

  • 5 Joseph D'Hippolito // Jun 2, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Paul, I have no professional respect for Lalas, who has to be the most incompetent GM in MLS history (three franchises, three strikes). He is nothing but a self-promoting blowhard and, during his tenure w/the Galaxy, a lackey of Leiweke. But I disagree with your assumption that Lalas destroyed Sampson’s coaching career.

    Sampson had two chances to redeem himself after the 1998 debacle: w/Costa Rica and w/the Galaxy. Costa Rica fired him before the final round of World Cup qualifying in 2002. — and after he guided the national team to that round.

    As far as the Galaxy goes, I remember his last home game as coach, a 1-0 loss to Colorado. Late in the game, there was some confusion on the field regarding a Galaxy substitute. Peter Vagenas, who rarely shows emotion on the field, was shouting at the Galaxy bench. Todd Dunivant — the player being substituted and one of the most quiet, unassuming players you’ll ever see — had a meltdown on the field. As Dunivant walked to the bench, Sampson tried to give him an encouraging fist pump on the shoulder. Dunivant not only ignored him but walked behind the bench to sit at the opposite end from Sampson. When one of the assistant coaches went over to talk to Dunivant, the subsituted player was visibly expressing his displeasure.

    Meanwhile, Sampson sat alone, with about two yards of empty space between him and the rest of the squad. He looked lonely and miserable.

    Regardless of Lalas’ motivation, Sampson had to be replaced. If Sampson hadn’t lost the team before that game, he most certainly did that night.

    If Sampson’s dismissal was *solely* based on Lalas’ desire for revenge, then Sampson would have had another significant coaching job by now. Unfortunately, Sampson destroyed his own career with his overbearing manner toward players.

    As far as the 3-6-1 goes, it looked good on paper. But Sampson made several key mistakes in implementing it. First, he waited too long to do so; if he recognized the need for such a dramatic tactical change, he should have made it immediately after the U.S. qualified in November 1997. Second, he was so heavy-handed in doing so that he dumped the team’s long-time captain (John Harkes) and brought in players (Brian Maissoneauve, Chad Deering) who had *no* international experience to the World Cup. Lalas, for all his incompetence, had nothing to do with that.

  • 6 Tom de Beurs // Feb 24, 2010 at 4:50 am

    Juergen Sommer and Jeff Agoos did not play at WC ’98…. But still a nice story

  • 7 Gregg // May 16, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    If you are reading this in 2016 or later, Lalas now has a podcast where he interviews Sampson and they talk about the ’98 World Cup
    https://art19.com/shows/the-mutant-gene-podcast/episodes/84abc947-281e-4b0a-b28b-2a837f5838d5

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