So far, the 1998 World Cup was going pretty badly for the U.S. men’s national team. They’d just played the Germans, losing 2-0 when they’d been counting on a tie. The next two games, against Iran and Yugoslavia respectively, now mattered more than ever.
First up, Iran.
As of game day -- June 21, 1998 -- Iran had been America’s sworn enemy for the past 20 years or so. Memories of the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran still made American blood boil. Even the White House was concerned, calling the secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Hank Steinbrecher, to confirm the U.S. was favored to win. And they were.
The Iranians had also lost their opening game. In fact, Iran had never won a World Cup match. Most of their players had not played outside of their own country. For the first time in this World Cup, the U.S. team was not the underdog. They were determined to get as many points as they could. They needed a win before they faced the formidable Yugoslavian team.
So for the Iran game, Sampson shifted the team’s strategy to all-out attack. He made five lineup changes -- that’s essentially half the team -- and abandoned the complex 3-6-1 formation he’d employed for the past two months.
Instead, Sampson organized the team in a 3-5-2 setup that uses two forwards. He went a step further, slotting in an additional forward (Joe-Max Moore) in what was normally a key defensive midfield role. Sure, the team would be vulnerable to counterattacks, but that was Sampson’s whole point: attack first, attack again, then keeping attacking.
Three minutes into the game, 26-year-old forward Brian McBride came close to scoring a header in his first-ever World Cup. The Americans had set the tone: they meant business. They continued to outplay Iran during most of the first half, except in one key way: The U.S. could not put the ball in the net.
After McBride hit the post, Claudio Reyna did the same. The Americans were doing everything right -- just an inch off the mark.
But in the 41st minute, Iranian midfielder Hamid Estili did not miss with a perfect header into the far corner of the goal. The U.S. returned to the locker room down 1-0.
Press officer Jim Froslid recalls that the locker room was devoid of positive energy. “You're 1-nil down. You're dominating. This is a moment where you know you can come back. Right?”
McBride says, “I don’t remember anybody getting fired up and screaming at each other or yelling something positive. No.”
The U.S. continued to play dominating football, but the goals just wouldn’t come. Meanwhile, Sampson’s all-out attack strategy had left the American side of the field vulnerable. Iran’s Mehdi Mahdavikia launched a one-man counterattack in the 84th minute, leaving a defender in the dust and rocketing the ball off U.S. goalkeeper Kasey’s fingers.
McBride finally scored a goal four minutes later -- the only goal the U.S. would notch in the entire tournament. The Americans could not equalize. They lost the game, 2-1, ensuring that the team would not advance past the group stage. The World Cup was effectively over.
After the game, the players went back to blasting Sampson in the press. Jeremy Schaap of ESPN was there that night and he remembers it “as the darkest place I’ve ever seen in sports.”
Dark indeed, the day a team has blown its chance at World Cup glory. Four days later, the U.S. had to play Yugoslavia, but the game was a formality at this point. And again, they lost. This time one-nil. The U.S. men’s national team had made a fool of American soccer in front of the whole world. A reckoning was coming.