The Copa America soccer match between Argentina and the United States was played Friday night in a small city in Uruguay, in an atmosphere utterly different from last summer's World Cup in the U.S. Most of the 21,000 fans were from neighboring Argentina. It was cloudy, misty and 50 degrees, seasonable weather for Uruguay, where it is winter in mid-July.
Those conditions make the 3-0 win over defending champion Argentina one of the most significant and exotic in the history of U.S. soccer.
The victory did more than put the United States into the quarterfinals of South America's most prestigious tournament. No matter what happens in tomorrow's quarterfinal match with Mexico, beating two-time World Cup winner Argentina should assure that Team USA's fortunes are left in the hands of coach Steve Sampson for the indefinite future.
"No other decision would be logical," said U.S. forward Eric Wynalda via telephone yesterday from Paysandu, Uruguay.
Under Sampson, who became interim coach in mid-April, Team USA also has won the U.S. Cup, beating three teams that played in the 1994 World Cup and tying another. Never before has a U.S. soccer team played so well for an extended period against top competition.
"Before the U.S. Cup, Steve asked me what he had to do to get the job," said Hank Steinbrecher, executive director of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "I said six wins. Then I looked at the six opponents for the U.S. Cup and Copa America and I said, 'One loss and a tie would be OK.' "
That is exactly what Team USA has done in those six games, posting a 4-1-1 record.
USSF President Alan Rothenberg said yesterday that he will stay with the plan of reviewing the coaching situation after the U.S. team finishes the Parmalat Cup Aug. 4-6.
"But every result is improving Steve's chances markedly," Rothenberg said.
"We threw the guy into a pit, and he has come out of it victorious," Steinbrecher said.
Since the USSF decided not to renew coach Bora Milutinovic's contract, it has focused on hiring a top foreign coach. Both Carlos Queiroz of Portugal and Carlos Alberto Parreira of Brazil turned down the job.
Sampson, 38, a native of Salt Lake City and former head coach at Santa Clara University, kept insisting the job should go to a U.S.-trained coach. It now seems he will get that wish.