Skeletons in the closet
Playing in their home stadium, the Los Angeles Galaxy won the 2005 U.S. Open Cup, the nation's oldest tournament and one of the two domestic cups Major League Soccer teams compete for every year. Yet bizarrely, a group of supporters began a postgame chant for the winning coach, Steve Sampson. "Fire Sampson! Fire Sampson!"
Probably few coaches, if any, would hear cries for their dismissal on a trophy-winning night, but Sampson had a history that followed him to Los Angeles.
It centered instead on three matches in the 1998 World Cup in France. The U.S. team lost every game it contested, versus Iran, Yugoslavia and Germany. The Americans only scored a single goal, and finished statistically dead last. Complaints by veteran players, including some not named to the World Cup roster, immediately followed. Sampson was fired, and Bruce Arena selected to man the post he still holds today.
Sampson's name became anathema to many U.S. national team fans who questioned his player selection, tactics, and leadership.
It was actually another national team, that of Costa Rica, that offered the Spanish-speaking Sampson his next major coaching opportunity. While his tenure with the team was a decent 11-7-4 in international competition, the results-oriented Ticos decided they wanted more. Sampson was dismissed and Alexandre Guimaraes returned to coach the squad he had previously guided to the 2002 World Cup.
Doug Hamilton, the general manager of the Galaxy, saw an opportunity to hire a coach he had admired during his national team stint, even though Sampson had no experience coaching professional club soccer at any level.
One problem was that the Galaxy already had a coach who had helped guide the Los Angeles team to its greatest success. Under Sigi Schmid, the Galaxy won a 2000 CONCACAF Championship, a 2001 Open Cup, and a 2002 MLS Cup title. In August of 2004, they were in first place in the league.
However, the team was struggling on the road and seemed snake-bit by their 2003 epic playoff loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, when they gave up five goals to lose a four-goal aggregate lead.
Schmid was replaced by Sampson, who didn't hesitate when offered the job.
"Who wouldn't want to coach the Los Angeles Galaxy?" Sampson said.
If Hamilton would have known what a public relations disaster his choice would be, he might have reconsidered. Criticism of Sampson, mostly centered around 1998, arose immediately from many fans. Though the Galaxy reached their conference finals in 2004, Sampson's decisions were often second-guessed, with France '98 often being mentioned.
Determined to put his stamp on the team, Sampson changed the team drastically during the offseason, building a supporting cast for star Carlos Ruiz. Yet it was Landon Donovan who became the Galaxy's marquee player in a last-minute trade. Sampson had to adjust his game plan.
There was a brief honeymoon period for Sampson in L.A. as the Galaxy won games early in the season. It only took a few games lost, however, for the criticism to start. All the fingers were pointed at one person - Sampson.
It wasn't without justification. Sampson's star signing, Guillermo Ramirez, wasn't scoring goals, despite the prodigious amount of shots he took. The Costa Rican acquisitions of Michael Umaña and Pablo Chinchilla weren't fitting well with the backline. Rookie Ugo Ihemelu, an unexpected draft pick by Sampson, had begun the season well, before shaky performances cost him a starting spot.
Though the Galaxy were far from being danger of missing the playoffs, anything less than first place in the league inevitably brought a negative comparison to Schmid.
Other coaches might have been granted some benefit of the doubt considering the number of players the Galaxy lost to World Cup qualifying games and Gold Cup matches, but no quarter was given to Sampson. Scathing accounts of his coaching style and tactics cropped up regularly in press reports that also speculated that his firing was imminent. When Jovan Kirovski was traded away from the Galaxy, the midfielder's parting shots at the coach only added more fuel to the fire of Sampson's funeral pyre.
In a sense, the heat Sampson took deflected attention away from his players, and more than one mentioned that it allowed the team to work the kinks out of their on-field difficulties in peace. The Galaxy were finding their way, and the U.S. Open Cup win was the first indication of this.
"We were the veteran leaders on the team," said Chris Albright, one of the holdovers from the team before Sampson. "Steve trusted us to get his message across, and confided in us. It was his first run in MLS and I think he looked to his veteran players to help. We had a good relationship as far as that went and I think that helped get us where we are."
Sampson's points got across better to the players than to their fans.
"The most difficult part of coaching this year was getting people to understand our message. You can't build a team with players going in and out. If people would understand that, they would know why we were giving young players chances."
Tyrone Marshall appreciated the adjustment made by the Galaxy.
"We had a lot of national team players who were off to their teams. I think the coach did a good job in terms of having a good bench. When guys were out, the ones who were here had to step up and play."
Though teams with fewer call-ups had better regular season records, the twice-over national team coach didn't like to view the honor as a liability. Sampson rejected the cautious approach of avoiding players likely to be called up, even as he acknowledged the drawbacks.
"It's a double-edged sword. You want players striving to be the best. I'm a believer in the process. I'll take the risk of a player missing league games in exchange for the experience they gain at the national team level."
Midseason saw Sampson express his confidence in his players in another, more tangible way. Other than bringing in a former Galaxy player, Marcelo Saragosa, Sampson stood pat with his starting roster.
He had seen what he believed was the team's true potential in an earlier stretch of games.
"The series versus DC United away and beating San Jose on the road in the Open Cup showed what we were capable of. The Dallas matches proved we could recover and come back to get the job done when it needed to be."
However, the expectations for the team fell to nearly zero when the Galaxy lost their final home game, 3-1 to their fiercest rivals, the San Jose Earthquakes. One person who wouldn't lose faith was Sampson.
"We'll get them next game," he stated that night.
Sampson also collaborated with his star, Donovan, on a crucial change.
"We went through a stretch of games where I played in the midfield and it worked well. Things change," Donovan stated. "I don't think we were getting the most out of me and I think Steve understood that. Steve brought me in and said, 'What do you feel about playing up front?'"
"I agreed with Landon - that he needed to be closer to goal," said Sampson. "I thought the combination of he and Herculez (Gomez) - their chemistry was getting better and better every single week."
His belief seemed to impact the team. The Galaxy trounced San Jose a week later in the opening playoff game, 3-1, with Gomez and Donovan scoring for Los Angeles. The team with the best record in the regular season was not able to mount a comeback like the one in 2003, and the Galaxy moved on to Colorado.
"We had all the guys coming back from national team and getting everyone healthy in time for the playoffs," said defender Tyrone Marshall of the Galaxy's postseason run. "We know its two seasons, the regular season and the playoffs. The regular season doesn't count once you get to the playoffs. It's all about the playoffs."
In San Jose, Sampson didn't hesitate to join his players in going over to acknowledge their traveling fans, though many were the same ones who had called for him to be fired. He joked with some that perhaps the chants helped the team win.
"It was tongue-in-cheek," Sampson later said of his statement. "I can't control how they decide to act. I hope they appreciate what the players have given."
For the Western Conference finals, Los Angeles had not won in the high altitude of Denver in over two years. That didn't matter, as they emerged triumphant, 2-0.
In the championship match against New England, Sampson watched his rejuvenated rookie, Ihemelu, effectively close down the league Golden Boot winner, Taylor Twellman. He saw the player he had moved into the roster spot of Kirovski, Gomez, make runs that continuously got in behind the Revolution defense. Donovan, back in the forward spot he and Sampson had agreed to, also looked dangerous. And the much-maligned Pando Ramirez scored the winner after being brought on as a subsitute.
Sampson didn't dwell on whether the victory was a justification against his doubters.
"Redemption is more important for the press who write about that kind of stuff. I'm proud of this team. I don't think it hurts to continue to prove that we can win championships."
It's possible that Donovan and the other veterans carried the Galaxy this year. It's also possible that the MLS playoff system is flawed and will one day be revamped. Alongside these possibilities exists another. Perhaps Sampson was never as bad a coach as three games in 1998 led many to believe.
The tumultuous year with the Galaxy, Sampson maintained, had taught him a lot.
"It's important that it's an easier learning curve now. I know who should play and in what positions. I've learned how important it is to have veterans to rely on. They provide the environment with which to lead. Pete Vagenas, Tyrone Marshall, and Chris Albright are players I trusted to give me important feedback on team matters, including things like when we should take days off. I have a good feel now for when they need rest."
There is no small irony in the fact that with the Galaxy triumph in MLS, Sampson hoisted the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy, since it was Rothenberg who fired him back in 1998. Older and maybe wiser today, Sampson reflected on the lessons he took from France.
"I'm a better coach now. I've gained more life experiences and a better understanding of the importance of including players."
One dream that he hadn't lost was the hope of one day returning to lead the U.S. national team.
"I'm interested." Sampson smiled, then quickly added, "I don't think it's likely."
Parts of his tenure, he believed, were worth merit.
"I'm proud I never lost a qualification phase with either national squad."
In the interim, Sampson is focused on the Galaxy, especially the international competition Los Angeles will face in February in the CONCACAF Champion's Cup. He's already expressed his preference as to which players he would like to return for another campaign, sticking with the core of the squad. The Galaxy only released Umaña on waivers.
"We've picked up both options on Gomez and Ramirez. Doug has to negotiate contracts. My hope is that terms can be worked out."
At the Galaxy's celebration ceremony in Los Angeles, no "Fire Sampson!" chants broke out this time. The naysayers may merely be lurking, still convinced Sampson is indelibly branded by his mistakes in France as a failure. Yet boosted by his current success, Sampson was content to coach in the city that forgives almost everything for enough championships.
"I'm happy here. I'll stay as long as I'm wanted."
As long as he keeps winning, the ghosts of the past should stay there.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org