Good thing that bicycle kick missed. Had it not—had U.S. defender Marcelo Balboa's blind, backward-somersaulting, ridiculously improbable shot late in America's 2-1 World Cup defeat of Colombia on June 22 actually found the back of the net instead of sailing wide left by inches—the entire country might have died a soccer death, stricken by over-excitement. Every videotape machine might have wheezed its last, replaying for the thousandth time what Pelé called "the most beautiful moment of the World Cup so far."
With its millennial victory in the Rose Bowl over a Colombian squad that had been the trendy choice to win the Cup, the home team not only brought the phrase "American soccer" out of the realm of oxymoron but also introduced a clutch of apparent contradictions. In spite of Sunday's 1-0 loss to Romania in Pasadena, the defeat of Colombia virtually assured the U.S. a spot in the second round when it gets under way this week, so get used to hearing about the "ponytailed barber's son." And the "37-year-old blur." And the "popular Serb."
Not a week earlier the international consensus was simple: The U.S. wouldn't have been in the World Cup at all if the host country didn't get an automatic berth. Now, suddenly, headline writers were calling the victory a MIRACLE ON GRASS, although no one on the American team wanted any part of that characterization. "A miracle is when a baby survives a plane crash," said Alexi Lalas, the U.S. defender who looks like the love child of Rasputin and Phyllis Oilier. Added Bora Milutinovic, the Yugoslav coach of the American team, in his pidgin Spanglish, "It is nor-mal."
When Alan Rothenberg, the chairman of World Cup USA 1994 and the president of U.S. Soccer, declared a few months ago that the American team was "a lead-pipe cinch" to reach the second round, he wasn't putting any additional pressure on the U.S. players. There was plenty of pressure already, for the players agreed that failure to go through to the round of 16 would make this World Cup a disaster for American soccer. Rather, Rothenberg was declaring his faith in Milutinovic's ability to work quadrennial magic. In 1986 Milutinovic guided Mexico to a surprising spot in the quarterfinals. Four years later he took tiny Costa Rica into the second round. Small wonder the U.S. federation took the advice of former German coach and superstar Franz Beckenbauer and hired Milutinovic in '91.
No one knows quite how Milutinovic does it. One of his favorite words, tranquilo, summarizes well the confidence and calm he tries to impart to his players. His obsession with assembling 22 men who are content in their roles led him to cut the captain of the Costa Rican team, and it figured in his surprising decision to let veteran U.S. sweeper Desmond Armstrong go this spring. Mystical and inscrutable, a man who communicates with indirection and shoulder shrugs, Milutinovic is obsessively secretive about matters of strategy. "You are first-timer!" he cackled last Friday at a green reporter who foolishly asked him how the U.S. would approach its game with Romania. "Nobody can figure him out," says U.S. midfielder Hugo Perez. "I can only tell you he knows what he's doing."
Soccer isn't a literal game but one of hunches and feelings and instinct. So perhaps fluency in English would be a skill wasted on a witch doctor like Milutinovic. Throughout the run-up to the Cup he served as a lightning rod not only for the growing skepticism about his team's chances but also for his players' anxieties. This allowed them to develop a self-confidence out of all proportion to their international reputation and, probably, their ability. "With Bora, everything is possible," says U.S. assistant coach Steve Sampson. Indeed, every lineup is possible, every tactic—and, ultimately, every result.
In World Cup tune-ups barely two months ago, the Americans tied Moldova and lost to Chile and Iceland. The defense was suspect, the offense absent. Still, Milutinovic kept incanting his mantra: So long as you learn from every tie, from every loss, all that matters is the World Cup, the World Cup. As U.S. defender Fernando Clavijo said to reporters after the victory over Colombia, "Do you remember we lost to Iceland now?"
Still, there was no accounting for how the Americans would respond to the pressure of being hosts of the world's greatest single-sport event. Some of the European veterans on the U.S. squad—John Harkes, who plays in England; Eric Wynalda, who plays in Germany; and Tab Ramos, who plays in Spain—sensed that uncertainty in the silence during the bus ride to the Rose Bowl for the game against Colombia. "Hey, guys, this is what pressure feels like," Wynalda said. "Doesn't it feel good? Enjoy it."
Meanwhile, Milutinovic was doing his part, tossing a pinch of this, a pinch of that into the brew. On apparent whim he benched burly defender Cle Kooiman in favor of the oldest American player, the 37-year-old Clavijo. Though Clavijo hadn't seen game action in months. Milutinovic may have gone to him because Clavijo is one of the team's three fastest players and because Milutinovic trusted Clavijo's feel for the Latin game.
"Another Bora mystery" is how midfielder Mike Sorber described his own inclusion in the U.S. lineup. For a while Sorber had doubted he would even make the final roster. But since Claudio Reyna, the Americans' 20-year-old phenom, tore a hamstring on June 8, Sorber had stepped in and played steadily at midfield with the more adventurous Tom Dooley.