The U.S. men’s national team had done it. They’d qualified for the 1998 World Cup. Now it was time to find out which teams they would face.
The World Cup draw determines the matchups for the tournament’s first round, the so-called group stage. Imagine the Powerball drawing on your local TV station, except this one is watched by half a billion people around the world.
Instead of drawing lottery numbers, a high-ranking FIFA official plucks balls from a bowl. Each ball contains the name of a country. When its ball is drawn, that country is slotted into one of eight groups consisting of four national teams.
In other words, three years of hard work, international travel and swaggering self-confidence can all be erased by three little plastic balls.
Hank Steinbrecher, who was then the secretary general of U.S. Soccer, attended the draw, which was held in an outdoor stadium in Marseilles on a chilly, windy December evening.
“So the first ball we draw is Germany,” he explains. ”And I distinctly remember sitting in my seat, saying, ‘Oh great. We’ve had two wars with them. They’re only the best team in the damn world and we’re playing Germany to start out with!’ Next is Iran! ‘Oh great. They have our hostages. This is going to be a diplomatic nightmare.’”
“Next one is Yugoslavia!” he continues. “Which is a great team and we are currently bombing them. So I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be a whirlwind of warfare.’”
Before facing these opponents in France, however, the U.S. team still had many challenges in the coming months before the World Cup. The players had to compete with each other to secure a spot on the final team roster. And coach Steve Sampson introduced a complex, new on-field formation, the 3-6-1, which changed everyone’s roles and prioritized speed and younger players. In turn, the team’s most veteran and high-profile players began to ride the bench.
Meanwhile, a newcomer arrived with just weeks to go before the World Cup. David Regis hadn’t helped the U.S. team qualify for this World Cup. In fact, he wasn’t even a U.S. citizen: he was born in Martinique, a territory of France, and had been playing professionally in France and Germany. But Regis was married to an American and at the behest of Sampson, was racing to get his U.S. citizenship. While Regis was doing that, he was also competing for a starting position against the team’s beloved left back, Jeff Agoos.
Agoos was no stranger to this gauntlet. He’d been cut from the World Cup team in 1994 at the last minute. He’d been so upset at the time that he burned his U.S. jersey in a fireplace. Fast forward four years, and Agoos feared he might once again be left behind.
On June 2 -- just two days before the team was scheduled to depart for France -- Sampson finally submitted his World Cup roster to FIFA. Twenty two players would represent the U.S.A. at the 1998 World Cup, including both Agoos and Regis. But Regis would be starting and Agoos, the veteran, would be watching from the bench.
Regis was elated and even teared up during the national anthem in his first World Cup game. But the team’s core of older players, who identified with Agoos and his plight, were none too pleased. A storm was brewing on the horizon.