Today in US National Team History: US 3-0 Austria

Steve Sampson entered April 1998 sporting a new formation which was evidently developed from watching tapes of international football and researching tactics on the internet. The previous month in San Diego against Parguary, Sampson had experimented with a 3-6-1 and with using Chad Deering, a team mate of Claudio Reyna at Wolfsburg in a holding midfield role. Deering played well against Paraguay, and Sampson already marginalizing the on field role of John Harkes suddenly dropped his captain permanently.

It was reported at the time that Harkes was “cut” from the USMNT. The term “cutting” players was used by Bora Milutinovic was used in 1994 as he dropped a host of players including World Cup vets Des Armstrong and Peter Vermes, as well as regulars Dom Kinnear, and Brian Quinn before the 1994 World Cup. But in 1998, John Harkes was the only player formally “cut” from the national team.

The reaction among US Soccer supporters to Harkes dropping was somewhere between shock and anger. The first American to feature at Wembley and the glue of the National Team had been dropped. Sampson had been for sometime been experimenting with new players: Deering, as well Brian Maisonneuve of the Columbus Crew, Frankie Hejduk of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and German born David Wagner who had played for the Germany at the U-20 level.

Thus the US National Team played in Vienna against Austria on  April 22, 1998 with a host of questions. But the National Team would fly back home the next day with many supporters, myself included believing that France 1998 would be the best US World Cup since 1930. Of course it actually turned out to be among the worst World Cup performances in US history. But what exactly transpired in Vienna to skew our perceptions of the team?

First of all, the team controlled possesion against a European side that had qualified for the World Cup away from home. The 3-6-1 formation appeared to work with Claudio Reyna as its focal point. Brian McBride replacing David Wagner in the second half (Wagner would never play for the US again after the bad first half performance) looked ready to replace Eric Wynalda, and an exciting young Ajax midfielder John O’Brien made his national team debut.

The match was so humiliating for Austria that the crowd began chanting USA-USA before 90 minutes expired. The scoreboard read 3-0, thanks to goals by Hejduk, McBride and Reyna.  Following this result a widely held assumption was that Sampson was a genius, Harkes was not needed, other veterans such as Wynalda and Tab Ramos should be faded out and that the best US team ever was right in front of us.

As it turns out, winning 3-0 may have been the worst thing that could have happened to Steve Sampson and those US  Soccer playing pioneers that wouldn’t last until 2002. The likes of Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas, Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa were robbed of their last shot of World Cup glory by Sampson’s misplaced belief in a formation that wasn’t going to work in France, and a set of newly introduced players particularly Deering that weren’t up to an international standard. But Sampson, with this remarkable result in hand was convinced he was right in dropping Harkes and employing a 3-6-1 and what’s worse is many supporters were convinced along with him.

Also on April 22nd, in 1990 the US faced Colombia in Miami. The match was tuneup friendly for both teams before World Cup 1990. Colombia won 3-0.