John Harkes was off the team. It didn’t make any sense. Harkes was practically born to play on the national team. He grew up in Kearny, N.J. -- nicknamed “Soccertown U.S.A.” -- where everyone he knew was the kids and grandkids of Scottish and Irish immigrants, and a love of soccer was in their DNA.
“We played constantly,” remembers Harkes. “We got kicked off the baseball fields, we got kicked off the American football fields, we got the ball stolen by the police and then had to have our dads go down and get the ball back again so we could play again that night.”
That non-stop playing paid off. Harkes was recruited by the University of Virginia and in his senior year, he quit college and joined the U.S. national soccer team. In 1990, the 23-year-old helped the team qualify for the World Cup for the first time in four long decades.
He was so good that he got picked up by one of the oldest pro teams in England, Sheffield Wednesday. It was a tough initiation for the young American, but he found a way to prove himself: with a blast from 35 feet out that flew past one of England’s best goalkeepers of all time, a legend name Peter Shilton. It was Harkes’ way of saying, “Hey, Americans can do it.”
But there was no time for celebrating. “Don’t get caught up in your emotions,” he told himself. “You’re an American. You’re trying to break in here. Get back to business.” Because professional soccer has an unforgiving, unsentimental culture. All that matters is the game.
By the time Harkes returned to the U.S. in 1996 to play for the shiny new Major League Soccer, he had become a legit international star – as well as one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful – and was named Captain for Life by team manager Steve Sampson. Harkes was funny, confident, well-liked and respected by his teammates.
And he was Eric Wynalda’s best friend.
They had been teammates for eight years and worked well together. Harkes could take the pressure off when Wynalda got too intense. They were partners in locker-room comedy and on the team bus did scenes from Dumb and Dumber or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
But Steve Sampson didn’t always appreciate Harkes’ breezy personality. And on April 14, 1988, Sampson called a press conference and announced that John Harkes – the man who’d become arguably the centerpiece of American soccer – was off the team.
The announcement shocked everyone – reporters, fans, players and Harkes himself: “I was just like, ‘Wow. I don’t understand.’”
At the time, Sampson vaguely cited discipline and leadership issues. In American Fiasco, Sampson boils his decision down to three strikes -- only two of which were made public at the time of Harkes’ ouster.
Strike one: Sampson says Harkes, a midfielder used to playing at the center of it all, initially refused to move to left back during an exhibition match against Holland. (Harkes disputes this, saying he was merely reluctant.) Strike two: Two days later, Sampson says Harkes and other players went out on the town and trashed a hotel room. (Harkes also disputes this.)
Strike three is a longer story.
The last straw for Sampson involved allegations that Harkes was having an affair with another player’s wife. Upon hearing the news, Sampson says he knew immediately that he’d have to kick Harkes off the team. “There were lines that you do not cross over. You don’t have an affair with another player’s wife." And it wasn’t just another player, but his best friend, Eric Wynalda.
The story behind that third strike wasn’t made public for 12 years, until Wynalda himself revealed it on his soccer talk show, Fox Football Fone-in. He and co-host Nick Webster were discussing an English player being accused of having an affair with the ex-girlfriend of a teammate. Webster said, “Well, you’ve had experience with this, Eric.” At that point, Wynalda explained to viewers, “there were allegations that John Harkes had been, had an inappropriate relationship with my wife and he was removed from the team for that reason.”
Sampson then broke his silence about the matter and spoke to reporters. “It was a relief, for me, because, finally, people heard the truth,” he says. (John Harkes declined to discuss allegations of an affair.)
Many players were surprised to learn an off-field issue had subtracted Harkes’ on-field skills and leadership from the team. Alexi Lalas was angry. Had he known the reason at the time, he says he would have said, “I want him on my team because he’s a good soccer player. As a professional, I will forgive you a lot as long as you’re going to help me win.”
Even Eric Wynalda was against Harkes getting sacked. “I thought that if I can handle it, Steve should have been able to handle it. Ripping John off that team was ripping the heart out of our team.”
All these years later, Steve Sampson doesn’t regret his decision, but he’s learned an important life lesson from it: “That to be a principled man, always comes with consequences.”