U.S. hopes Cup coach can import a miracle

March 28, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- Picture this:

It is 1994, the World Cup is under way, and the U.S. soccer team has made it to the second round, upsetting the status quo. Now it has designs on the championship. Crowds fill stadiums wherever the American team is playing, and the chants are deafening:

"Bor-a! Bor-a! Bor-a!"

It has a familiar ring, like "De-Fense! De-Fense!" But this is not American football, this is soccer and it has captured the imagination of America. The man they are cheering is Bora Milutinovic, who has turned the U.S. team into a heavyweight contender for the Cup.

Is that picture only a dream?

"In 1980, the U.S. hockey team pulled off the 'Miracle on Ice' by winning the Olympics," said U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg. "In 1994, the U.S. soccer team will perform 'Splendor in the Grass.' Our goal is to win the 1994 World Cup. I prescribe to Robert Browning's wonderful quote, 'Man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for.' "

The man chosen to pull off this feat is Milutinovic, a 46-year-old Yugoslavian, who has created minor miracles for Mexico and Costa Rica in the last two World Cups.

"I'll be a most happy man to win the championship," Milutinovic said, in a mixture of English and Spanish translation. "I believe what your football coach Vince Lombardi said, 'Winning is not just important, it is the only thing.' "

The choice of Milutinovic has met with mixed feelings in the U.S. soccer community. Some believe the selection of a Yugoslavian, who speaks seven languages but only limited English, will not be met with excitement in a country that already views soccer as a foreign subject.

Others, like Rothenberg, team captain Peter Vermes and USSF secretary general Hank Steinbrecher, see it differently.

"Having coached here 15 years, the situation was obviously a moral dilemma for me," said Steinbrecher, a member of the selection committee. "My first thought was to get an American coach and go for it. But I'm also very practical. To get the skill base we needed to bring us through more than the second round in the next Cup, we had to go look at international talent."

Vermes, who just met Milutinovic yesterday, saw only positives.

"I liked a lot of what he said," said Vermes. "He's excited and wants to win. The fact his English isn't very good right now doesn't bother me. He knows the game and how to make us play better."

Milutinovic knows where the bottom line lies. "Everyone comes around if you are winning," he said.

Mexico was 3-17-4 in World Cup history, until Milutinovic took it to the quarterfinals and a sixth-place finish with a 3-1-1 record in 1986.

He became coach of Costa Rica only eight weeks before the 1990 World Cup, but managed to help the squad advance to the second round. Both times he worked small miracles with limited budgets.

"Bora's commitment level is excellent and he is very charming," Rothenberg said. "In a perfect world, we'd have a home-grown coach, who could speak excellent English. But our objective is to shoot for the World Cup. That being the case, we had to go after someone who has impressive skills and knows how to get us there."

Rothenberg added, however, he does not want this to be a never-ending state of affairs.

"John Kowalski will stay on as assistant coach," Rothenberg said of the former Major Soccer League coach, who has been the interim coach since Bob Gansler resigned. "We've made it clear to Bora and we will continue to press upon him, if not make it mandatory, that he have American assistants.

"We want to learn what he knows and stop the cycle that has forced us to look for an international coach from whom to learn the game."

As for Milutinovic, he is, indeed, a charmer.

What style will he pursue?

"That of a winner," he said.

Will it be an offensive team?

"If we have the ball," he said.

Realistically, what can the U.S. team hope to accomplish in 1994?

"Realistically, all I said before, about going for the World Cup, I feel is achieveable. I will work with this team with love in my heart and I will teach them how to think as one about the game and I will teach them tactics and in 1994, when the results get to be important, we will get important results."

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