When he first took over as coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, Steve Sampson faced an uphill battle.
He was expected to take over a first-place team, improve the club's level of play and meet the club's lofty title expectations all the while playing attacking and attractive soccer.
It took a little more than a year, but Sampson has met most of the expectations. The Galaxy already won a championship, claiming the U.S. Open Cup in September. The 2005 club scored more goals than the 2004 team did.
So what if the team had a mediocre regular season? The Galaxy is one victory away from winning the second MLS title in club history and fifth title overall.
"That's what they pay me for," Sampson said. "Nothing in my contract says that I have to win the Supporters' Shield for me to maintain my contract. What this organization wants is trophies in the trophy case."
At some point during the season, however, it appeared that Sampson would not get the chance to win a trophy as his job was reportedly in jeopardy. But the Galaxy righted the ship soon enough. The club won an important road game on Aug. 20 at D.C. United and beat the San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 at Spartan Stadium in the Open Cup quarterfinal. Since then, almost everything has gone the Galaxy's way.
Even the rumors meant little to Sampson.
"The last thing I want is for this game to be anything about me," Sampson said. "Over the years, I've learned that perception is reality and never do I ever want the perception that a coach's position or his situation is more important than the game itself or the players or the club. This is all about me basically leasing this position ... I've appreciated the support I've gotten from guys like [AEG President] Tim Leiweke and [Galaxy GM] Doug Hamilton because they've allowed me to do my job without the fear of reprisal."
Galaxy players did not feel comfortable discussing Sampson's supposed shaky ground. Earlier this year, Galaxy captain Peter Vagenas said it was "disrespectful" to speculate on a coaching change.
But by buying into Sampson's coaching ways, the club has showed its support for him.
"The bottom line is you gain confidence in yourself by your players," Sampson said. "I think the players have done a wonderful job in the organization by supporting me and supporting the coaching staff and believing in us and then getting it done on the field. As a coach you can't ask for more."
Statistically, the Galaxy have not been overwhelming with Sampson at the helm. In regular-season games, Sampson has compiled a 15-16-9 mark. But in the playoffs, he is a respectable 3-2-1 and has guided the team to MLS Cup.
"I got this team to the conference championship last year and we were 90 minutes away from getting to the MLS final," Sampson said. "We won the U.S. Open Cup championship this year. We're undefeated in the playoffs. We're in the MLS Cup. We beat a very good team in Colorado 2-0 to win the conference championship. We beat arguably the best team in the regular season in the San Jose Earthquakes ... It's all about playing your best soccer at the right time."
Still, Sampson said he understands the demands placed upon soccer coaches, particularly by a club who sacked a first-place coach. Win or lose, Sampson will be evaluated after the season.
"When this is all over, we'll sit down and make the determination whether I continue on or not," Sampson said.
But if it were up to him, he would return, right?
"Of course," Sampson said. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of this organization? Who wouldn't want to be a part of this team? This team is only going to get better."
Luis Bueno is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.