Fresh off their impressive showing at the Copa America tournament, the U.S. team was feeling ready to take on the world. Or, more specifically, the World Cup. That was coming up in 1998 and the players were primed to begin the qualification run.
“We were a confident team,” remembers defender Marcelo Balboa. “When we walked out on the field, we knew that we could beat anybody in the world.”
But exactly who would walk out on that field was the question nagging at every player. Even if the team qualified for the World Cup, not every player would make the final 22-man roster. Even fewer would get starting roles.
The yearlong qualification process, thus, became a kind of ongoing audition for the World Cup roster, with Steve Sampson serving as casting director. And with his interim-coach days now behind him, he felt confident about making decisions, even bold ones that would not make everyone happy.
His first big move was to take the title of team captain away from the calm-under-pressure veteran Balboa and give it to the scrappy, tenacious Jersey boy, John Harkes. And this title didn’t come with “interim” before it. In fact, Harkes was known as “Captain for Life.”
The change didn’t put Balboa in the best frame of mind for the march toward the World Cup. To make it, the U.S. would have to survive an initial round of six games and qualify for a second round of 10 games, dubbed the “Hex.”
For players, this test is both physical and psychological. Stifling heat, waterlogged fields and in every city they traveled to — a stadium filled with people who truly hated them.
Balboa remembers a dummy dressed in a U.S. national team uniform that was swung from the top tier of a stadium with a noose around its neck. Jeff Agoos says a bag of urine was probably the worst thing thrown at him — though the C batteries hurt, too.
It was an added degree of difficulty for players who were battling other teams and trying to outshine one another for playing time.
The next big move by Sampson as he started to whittle the team down was to bench the team’s highest-profile player, the closest thing it had to a star, Alexi Lalas. “It sucked,” says Lalas. “Because I felt that you dance with the ones that brung you.” But the players weren’t the only ones with jobs on the line. U.S. Soccer was already courting the Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz as a replacement for Sampson.
By November 1997, there were just three games to go in the “Hex” and the American position was tenuous. With doubt setting in, the team arrived in Mexico City for a crucial game, knowing the U.S. had never beaten or even tied Mexico on their home turf.
Once inside The Estadio Azteca, the team would battle the triple threat of altitude, smog and the noise of 105,000 frenzied Mexican fans. The Americans played shorthanded after Jeff Agoos was sent off the field with an early red card. Yet, somehow, they tied, 0-0. Their performance was so impressive that the Mexican fans gave the American team a standing ovation as they left the field.
That game proved to the team they could win anywhere in the world. Just one week after Mexico, the U.S. qualified for the 1998 World Cup in a shutout game against Canada.
Cue: the celebration. The flowing champagne, giddy embraces and heartfelt speeches were all captured for posterity, including that moment Sampson threw an arm around his Captain for Life, John Harkes, and said to him, “Your third World Cup. Can you believe it?”
But not all the players celebrating in the locker room that day would actually get to play at the 1998 World Cup. Some of the team’s most experienced veterans would go to France, but never set foot on the field. Others wouldn’t make it there at all, including, of all people, John Harkes.
Just two months before the World Cup, the Captain for Life was captain no more.