American player John Harkes is surprisingly not guaranteed a place in the USA's World Cup squad. Rich Zahradnik discusses whether he will make the cut or not

I almost choked on my Cheerios. The story was right there on page two of the New York Times sports section: Harkes Is Dropped From US Cup Team. The story covered almost half the page. I’m not sure what surprised me more – Harkes’s departure or the Times’s realisation such a big story was a big story.

The coverage of the end – for now at least – of John Harkes’s national team career was emblematic of his role as trailblazer in the modern era of US soccer (that is, post-1990). He was in the team that qualified for the 1990 World Cup, ending the US’s 40-year absence from the finals. He was the first in the modern era to make it big overseas. While others may have gone before him, he played in the English top division, went to Wembley for the FA Cup final and the League Cup final and scored that Goal of the Year. He was one of the first Americans to return to the US for Major League Soccer, leading DC United to back-to-back championships and the first true American double (the 1996 MLS Cup and the US Open Cup).

And he was the first US player cut from the national team to receive the kind of media attention those in football playing nations would expect when a ten-year veteran, the team captain and the all-round spokesman for football is pre-emptively dropped before the squad is even announced. Why did Sampson pull the plug on Harkes? There were problems both off and on the field.

Off the field, according to the Washington Post’s investigation, captain-for-life Harkes missed team flights and a team bus. (His excuse for the latter was he and Roy Wegerle never got their wake up call in Mexico City. Sure John.) He was caught sneaking back into a Brussels hotel at 4 am after a boozy night celebrating another player’s birthday. Well, at least he learned something playing in England.

The off-the-field problems titillate. The on-the-field problems open a window on how much the team has changed in four years. Sampson wanted Harkes to embrace a defensive role. When slotted at defensive midfield, he went forward too much, forcing playmaker Claudio Reyna to cover for him. When told he’d be playing left back against Holland, he argued with Sampson on the training pitch.

Harkes’s work rate and adequate skills aren’t enough to make him an attacking midfielder, not even in the US team. Chad Deering, the 27-year-old who plays defensive midfield behind Reyna at VfL Wolfsburg, is more than willing to take on a similar role in the national team. And Sampson has several strong options at full back. In the end, cutting Harkes was Sampson’s boldest move since he allowed the team to shed the shackles of Bora Milutinovic and play attacking football in the 1995 Copa America.

Deering may have won the slot opened up when Harkes went, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from pointing to the fact that All-American Harkes will be missing and the Martinique-born Frenchman David Regis, a defender with Karlsruhe in Germany, will attend France 98 as a US citizen after he was rush-naturalized in late May under a provision of law used for spouses of government employees, military personnel and those working in world trade. Conveniently enough, Regis’s American wife was found a job with a World Cup travel company in France.

 In dumping Harkes and grabbing Regis, some might say Sampson is doing whatever it takes to win. Americans invented professionalism in sport and winning at all costs. Maybe it is time in soccer

From WSC 137 July 1998. What was happening this month

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