Men in Blazer’s Roger Bennett previews American Fiasco, a new podcast from WNYC Studios about the United States’ calamitous 1998 World Cup campaign
Two of the worst results in American men’s soccer history were both 2-1 losses. All U.S. soccer fans remember with awful clarity the catastrophic 2017 loss to Trinidad and Tobago that kept the USMNT from qualifying for this summer’s World Cup. Less familiar, however, is the U.S. team’s 2-1 loss to Iran in the 1998 World Cup, which ended the World Cup dreams of a talented and ambitious American squad after just two matches.
The disaster of the U.S. team at the 1998 World Cup in France is the subject of American Fiasco, a new podcast produced by Roger Bennett and WNYC Studios. A story told in 12 parts, the podcast traces how an American squad full of talented players like Claudio Reyna and Eric Wynalda flamed out and failed to register a single point in the group stage.
Ahead of the release of the first six episodes this Monday, June 4, Bennett (or Rog, as he is known to fans of his other podcast Men in Blazers) caught up with Eight by Eight to discuss American Fiasco, the parallels between the 1998 and the 2017 squads, and how the United States’ recovery from France 1998 points toward how the the U.S. team can rebound in the years to come.
EIGHT BY EIGHT: Tell us about American Fiasco. What’s it about? Why should we listen?
ROGER BENNETT: American Fiasco is a 12-part deep dive into the US journey at the 1998 World Cup. I have always been fascinated by the story. For its 20th anniversary, I was honored to have the chance to partner with WNYC Studios and travel the US speaking to the coaches, players, and broadcasters who went on this journey together — from the intense optimism of the 1994 World Cup which transformed the lives of its players, down into the 1995 Copa where the US under then interim coach Steve Sampson, slayed Chile, Diego Simeone’s Argentina, and Mexico. They left their feeling, in the way Americans do, that they were true dark horses for the 1998 World Cup.
But the values which had fueled their success, collective team-play and a one for all ethos, evaporated as money, self-interest, and success entered the equation. Like Icarus strapping on the wax wings, they flew towards the sun, though in the words of ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, in reality, they only got about ten feet off the ground. I have long been fascinated by team cultures, and locker room values that allow some teams to overachieve, and others to implode. This story begins like Rocky, but ends like Apocalypse Now, with a little Scarface thrown in. To revisit it now, especially after the failure of the 2018 cycle, was a remarkable experience.
88: The show delves into some pretty dramatic locker room turmoil. Most players are usually tight-lipped about what happens behind closed doors. How challenging was it to get players to open up to you?
RB: 20 years on, so many of the players were able and willing to revisit their journey. Steve Sampson, Alexi Lalas, Eric Wynalda were all very generous with their time and incredibly open. To relive game film with Frankie Hejduk (who had a remarkable life changing World Cup despite the results — he moved to the Bundesliga) was a pure delight. Few of the players had looked at the Iran game since the final whistle. It was a particular joy to interview David Regis and hear his side of the story. A gent who approached the peculiar American team culture with fresh eyes. One note that surprised me was how much the experience continues to play through to the present day for many of the characters who lived it.
88: As we all know, the USMNT missed out on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Do you see any parallels between what went wrong in 1998 and the USMNT’s recent misfortune?
RB: Very much so. US Soccer never saw 1998 coming, and missed so many warning signs along the way. The failure was devastating for US Soccer’s standing in the eyes of the widest possible American sports audience. They paid a heavy price, learned lessons, and rebounded in 2002 with the best performance at a World Cup in the modern period. Almost all of the men I interviewed said the same thing… that the 1999 Women bailed them out by winning the World Cup the next year and restoring America’s faith in the game. No pressure, but may the soccer gods repeat that next year at the Women’s World Cup in France!
88: US Soccer is about to hire a new manager for the USMNT. Based on what you learned reporting American Fiasco, what should new US Soccer be looking for in its next head coach?
RB: US Soccer is a peculiar culture. It sees itself as unique — we talk about “a coach that understands the mindset of the American player.” We have seen in the past, that foreign coaches, no matter their reputation, can be rejected like donor organs. In 1998, Steve Sampson won the job because the players were thrilled to have an American coach, who understood the American player and “the American desire to attack” and play “forward minded football.” The squad were also initially delighted to be free of Bora’s shackles, but once Steve had let them loose, he could no longer control them, and they undermined him.
Today’s US Soccer coach has to be a delicate balance between being an elite coach at the global level – it always fascinated me that Bruce Arena never wanted to coach abroad – and one who understands the mindset of the American player and can understand their distinct qualities which is crucial to gaining their respect. That is a Venn diagram that has very, very few coaches in it… Tata Martino. Who else?
88: It’s taken 20 years to finally hear the story of what went wrong in 1998. Is that a problem for American soccer? Should journalists be working harder to expose this kind of locker room drama before it damages team culture, before it contributes to teams crashing out of World Cups or even missing out on one entirely?
RB: One of the most fascinating story lines of the 1998 journey was talking to journalists from that time. Many of them reminisced about how the sport was so new, their jobs so fresh, they didn’t really know what to ask, and were just giddy to be part of the new bounty that existed through the growth of the game. In reflection, they laughed at how little they knew about the squad dynamics which were hiding in plain sight in front of their eyes. This has changed. There is a real body of dedicated journalists who do a remarkable job covering the sport. It is one of the great changes of the past ten years. Their analysis, insight, and collective wisdom is one of the biggest drivers of the growth of the game in the United States.
88: You have lived in America for 25 years. Does what has happened in 2018 and reliving the 1998 experience make you feel you will never see America win a World Cup in your lifetime?
RB: I am an eternal optimist when it comes to American soccer. I am also about to be sworn in as an American citizen and so eligible to actually play for the USMNT. Anything is possible. Anything is possible.