Coach says alleged affair hurt '98 US soccer team

NEW YORK -- Breaking more than a decade of silence, former U.S. soccer coach Steve Sampson said Tuesday he dropped John Harkes from the national team roster two months before the 1998 World Cup because the American captain was having an affair with the wife of teammate Eric Wynalda.

Harkes has long denied having an affair with Amy Wynalda.

Wynalda brought up the situation Monday night during a discussion on "Fox Football Fone-In" about a scandal in England over an alleged relationship between current English captain John Terry and the former partner of Wayne Bridge, his teammate on the national squad.

Sampson told The Associated Press on Tuesday he was glad the story was coming out now because "maybe people will have a little better of an understanding of what happened in the final months leading up to the World Cup."

After advancing to the second round of the 1994 World Cup at home, the U.S. finished last in the 32-nation field at the 1998 tournament in France, getting shut out by Germany, then losing 2-1 to Iran and 1-0 to Yugoslavia.

"It wasn't about losing 2-0 to Germany or losing to Iran," Sampson said. "There was more to it than that that impacted I believe the outcome of this team."

Wynalda said he spoke out during the program he co-hosts on Fox Soccer Channel because he was asked about Terry, who has been front-page news since Saturday in British newspapers.

"There's a lot of similarities between what happened to us in '98 and what's happening now to England," Wynalda told the AP. "It's an unfortunate time for England, because I know how that can affect a team firsthand. Obviously, we all know how we did in the World Cup in '98."

Sampson was replaced by Bruce Arena after the tournament.

Harkes was a member of the 1990 and 1994 U.S. World Cup teams and became the regular captain before he was dropped by Sampson in a surprise move on April 14, 1998. He made 90 international appearances from 1987-00.

"I am not going to rehash the things that have happened in the past," Harkes said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "1998 was devastating to me and my family. It was hard enough not to play in the World Cup, but it was even difficult to go through that time period, the most difficult time period of my life."

Sampson said Tuesday that Roy Wegerle, another U.S. player, came to him and assistant coach Clive Charles between the Feb. 25 game at Belgium and the March 14 match against Paraguay in San Diego and said he had personal knowledge of the affair. Charles died in 2003 and Wegerle, now retired, did not return a phone call Tuesday

In 1998, Sampson said Harkes, then 31, was dropped because the midfielder refused to play a more defensive role. Sampson also cited "leadership issues" but didn't elaborate.

Sampson, much criticized by players during the World Cup and fired after the U.S. was eliminated, defended his decision to hide the truth. He said he discussed his decision at the time with then-U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg, secretary general Hank Steinbrecher and current president Sunil Gulati, a longtime member of the leadership.

"I felt that these are the kinds of issues that need to stay in the locker room and within the team and not (be) exposed to the public," Sampson said. "The private issues for me were the most serious issues. I think I could have lived with everything else and kept John on the team if it had not been for the private issues. It's one thing to have an affair outside the team. It's another to have one inside. ... There are just certain lines that one cannot cross."

Rothenberg said Tuesday he had no memory of any discussion of the matter, Gulati declined comment and Steinbrecher did not return a telephone message.

Wynalda, however, insists an affair did take place.

"I'm calling it an inappropriate relationship. It was a major contributor to why I'm no longer married," said Wynalda, a father of three who separated from his wife in 2003 and then divorced.

Wynalda said that when Sampson informed him in the spring of 1998 that he was dropping Harkes, Wynalda tried to persuade the coach to change his mind. Sampson didn't recall such a conversation, but said that doesn't mean it didn't take place.

"At that time, I felt that he was still a player that could help our cause and he was still one of the best 22 players in our country," Wynalda said.

Wynalda and Harkes played together just once after that, when called in by Arena for a January 2000 exhibition at Chile.

"At that point, it was still manageable," Wynalda said.

Harkes, the U.S. college player of the year in 1987 at Virginia, was one of the first Americans to make the move overseas, playing for Sheffield Wednesday, Derby, West Ham and Nottingham Forest in England during the 1990s. He also was among the early players in Major League Soccer, playing with D.C. United, New England and Columbus before his retirement in 2002.

Like Harkes, Wynalda was among the early U.S. players in Europe, playing for Saarbruecken and Bochum in Germany before appearing for San Jose, Miami, New England and Chicago in MLS. Wynalda was an analyst for ESPN's soccer coverage in 2006 and 2007, and joined Fox last year. He was appointed last month as a part-time assistant coach of the U.S. under-20 team.

Harkes also worked for ESPN's 2006 World Cup coverage and replaced Wynalda as a lead analyst for ESPN two years ago.

Now working for different networks, both are preparing for this year's World Cup. Wynalda also is writing a book.

"I've suffered quite a bit through this whole process. My healing is over, so I'm OK to talk about it," Wynalda said.

Sampson, who plans to broadcast for Futbol de Primera radio at this year's World Cup, said he wanted people to know that he and Harkes mended their relationship in 2005 and exchanged a handshake.

"Maybe now people will have a little bit more of an understanding as to why I made such a critical decision back in 1998," Sampson said. "The last thing I wanted to do was drop John Harkes from the team because I really did believe that he was an outstanding leader on the field."