A cautionary tale of a nation, a team, and a coach who thinks he knows more than the next guy. Sheep to the slaughter courtesy of a bizarre soccer formation and goofy player personnel selection. It’s time-honored, it’s easy to do, and in this case, it’s absolutely on the mark: I blame the coach.

When it comes right down to it, the United States deserved a whole lot better in World Cup ’98 than to finish dead last, team number 32 of 32. But coach Steve Sampson clearly didn’t know what he was doing, and the result was a giant U.S. pratfall of a performance on the World Cup stage.

It now seems like a cruel joke designed to raise American expectations, but going into the tourney FIFA ranked the U.S. #11 in the world. Add to this that a number of U.S. National team players had prior World Cup experience. What’s more, in the MLS the States finally had its first professional soccer league running since the NASL on the late ’70s.

What happened is a tale of coaching inexperience taking down a team, and it should help insure that in the future, the U.S. soccer program will be headed by somebody who knows a little more about how to treat professional athletes (hint: not like cattle) and to coach the game of soccer (hint: the ball is round).

Head coach Steve Sampson, widely regarded as one of the better U.S.-born soccer coaches in the game today, was to lead our boys to victory, or barring that, at least a respectable, close, second-round loss. U.S. fans would ponder what might have been but would happily acknowledge that the boys had done well given our relatively newness to the game.

Sampson resigned earlier this week, having completed a destruction of the U.S. World Cup team that was on par with what Don Nelson did to the Golden State Warriors a few years back. The reasons for this disaster are varied, but they all point to one thing: Sampson had no clue how to guide a world-class soccer team.

First, Sampson played dozens of different players in qualifying matches in an effort to find the right ones for the squad. To a certain extent this is a necessary process, but for the most part, this kind of scouting and evaluating of talent needs to happen in other situations or, at the very least, early on in the World Cup process. The U.S. National Team was deprived of the opportunity to meld as a team because of these constant roster changes, and that’s no way to build team chemistry or unity.

Second, despite nearly four years of this revolving lineup, Sampson apparently couldn’t decide on a starting group of players until just before the Cup. Defender David Regis was added to the squad in the final hour, having played only one qualifying match, and he played significant minutes in all the U.S. games. (Indeed, one the biggest crimes of the Cup for the U.S. was the treatment of U.S. defender Jeff Agoos who sweated through four years of Cup qualifying games only to be replaced by Regis. Agoos never saw a minute of playing time in the Cup. Said Agoos: “I deserved better than this.”)

Third, dropping ex-captain and midfielder John Harkes in January turned out to be a huge mistake. Not only is Harkes more talented than some of the players the U.S. fielded (for example, Mike Burns), but his leadership skills were sorely missed. Not to mention that Harkes’ exclusion put a bitter taste in the mouths of the players, many of whom were Harkes’ good friends.

Fourth, Sampson’s player selection and rotation during the games was chaotic and baffling. What was Mike Burns doing starting against Germany? Why did Preki stay on the bench that entire game? Why didn’t Tab Ramos start? What possessed Sampson to think that he could run the offense through Claudio Reyna who, while not a bad player, isn’t close to being a midfielder who can control a game? Why did Wynalda, the team’s all-time leading scorer sit the entire game against Yugoslavia? Not once during this World Cup did the United States field its strongest team.

And finally, what on God’s green earth possessed Sampson to go with a 3-6-1 alignment which no World Cup team, I repeat, NO WORLD CUP TEAM uses.

The idea behind the 3-6-1 is that the attack can come from anywhere in the midfield so it’s hard to defend. Similarly, the back three midfielders can theoretically give a team six people back in a hurry. This requires a high midfield work rate, but it is possible.

Of course the reason nobody uses the 3-6-1 is because they realize that the midfield is the least important area of the field. What’s crucial is a strong defense (Paraguay, for example) or a talented offense (like Denmark, Chile or Nigeria). There’s no need to control the midfield if, with a long pass, you can bypass it entirely. That might be tough to do at the college level, but in the pros it’s neither hard nor uncommon.

Sure, the great teams (Brazil, France, Italy, etc.) will control the midfield anyway. They have the players to do this. (Note that they still don’t use a 3-6-1.) If you don’t have the players (and the U.S. does not), the key is then to emphasize either defense or attack. Holding the midfield through sheer numbers is a mistake because it dramatically weakens both your offense and defense. As Sampson found out.

So for which of these errors would Steve Sampson have been fired for if he had not resigned early this week? Pick any one, and it’s a perfectly valid reason. I continue to like Steve Sampson as a person, and I think he’s genuinely good guy who got in over his head. Way over his head. It’s just a shame that when he self-destructed, he took four years of U.S. soccer with him.