WASHINGTON -- No one has ever expected very much from the U.S. National team. But Bora Milutinovic is changing that.
"It is the most difficult job I've ever had," says the new coach, smiling happily. "This is such a big country, such a big public. I wanted this job and now I have to make good in the World Cup. Yes, it is difficult, but it is also very exciting to have the opportunity to show the world Americans can be competitive in soccer."
It was almost a miracle when the U.S. team broke a 40-year streak by qualifying for the 1990 World Cup. The fact it didn't win a game in that tournament didn't surprise anyone.
But now there is Milutinovic and change is under way. Since he was named March 27, the U.S. team has gone 9-3-4 in exhibitions against international competition. But Milutinovic's influence is felt in more than just wins and losses.
When he talks about soccer, his eyes have a shining light, as if he can see somewhere into the future. When he talks to those who care little about soccer, he is an evangelist, spreading the gospel of the outdoor game. And when he talks to his players, it is always with a smile, always with encouragement and praise.
"For my players, it is better I smile," he says. "The iron fist is not what they need."
This week, the native of Yugoslavia is mostly the evangelist, as he attempts to sell the Baltimore/Washington/Richmond area on his U.S. National team and Saturday's 4 p.m. game against North Korea at RFK Stadium.
"We need to play many games to become consistent," Milutinovic says. "You know, America is very nice. But America likes to win, so we must use this game to get better so we can find a way to win."
The National team has had insecure coaches and introverted coaches. It has had men who were very good at drawing Xs and Os on blackboards and very bad at player relations.
It has never had anyone like the man who says, "Just call me Bora." For the first time, with Milutinovic, it has a coach who has played professionally abroad, a coach who has taken two downtrodden National teams, in Mexico and Costa Rica, to World Cup successes beyond their expectations and a coach who has the respect of his players.
Already he is having an impact, by expanding the soccer pool from which players are chosen. Milutinovic doesn't care where his players have played or for whom they have played. He is healing wounds. The 13-year schism between outdoor and indoor leagues is no longer an issue.
"If you know how to play soccer, you play soccer," says Milutinovic, who has six current or former indoor players on his 18-man roster. "They are two games played in different places, indoor and outdoor, but they are the same game. If you can play soccer, I want to see you. I want to know about you. My biggest challenge from now until the beginning of 1993 is to find and see players."
As Milutinovic is shuttled around Washington, he says he has an advantage coaching in the United States.
"I think the best athletes in the world are right here, in this country," he says. "Also the players I have here have finished school. That is very important. They are smart. They know the game. They relate to what I say . . . And what makes me happiest is they want to be better. They practice and play very hard. All they need is experience."
Players, like Hugo Perez, who were treated badly in the past, are coming back. Players, like Desmond Armstrong, who wondered if the United States would ever give itself a chance at success, are encouraged. Players, like Maryland Bays forward Phillip Gyau, who have signed with foreign teams -- Milutinovic says proudly there are now eight of them -- may sometimes be out of sight, but never out of mind in his plans for 1994. Milutinovic will make regular trips to see them, talk to them and encourage them.
It hasn't always been like that. Perez, a forward who played four seasons with the San Diego Sockers of the Major Soccer League, played with the National team in 1988, left to gain international experience with a club in Paris. When he returned to the U.S. team in 1989 to prepare for the 1990 World Cup, then coach Bob Gansler told him he was no longer wanted.
Defender Bruce Savage, who was a member of the National team in 1984, tells of a similar experience with then-coach Alkis Panagoulis, who had no patience for a player who also was interested in playing indoor soccer. Now, after eight All-Star years with the Baltimore Blast, Savage is back, too.
"Bora smiles, but Bora takes everything very seriously," says Savage. "He doesn't miss any tiny detail. Like a simple heading ** drill. If you land wrong on your feet, he'll get all over you for it, because everything you do pertains to something you do in the game. Bora knows what he wants. He keeps things simple and effective. And he makes sure we do things right."
Milutinovic gets down and dirty with his players. He doesn't just tell them what to do. He suits up and shows them how to do it.
"Ah, sometimes it is not so pretty," says the 46-year-old. "I like to win all the time and because of that, I can be very intense."
But his players don't mind.
"I never thought I'd play with my National team ever again," Perez says. "But now there is Bora. He is not caught up in personalities. All he looks for is talent. I don't know if I'll make it to the World Cup. I am 27. But now I have a chance. A lot of players have a chance."
A chance is something the U.S. National team has never had. Now, with a man called Bora, it does.