Tab Ramos apologizes up front if the following story sounds a little too much like the script of a B movie. "O.K., I know how silly this seems," Ramos was saying on Sunday night, "but I swear, when I woke up this morning, I was lying back on my pillow, and I had this vision that I would score a goal, and we'd go on to beat Costa Rica 1-0. Then I snapped out of it, and I was smacking myself in the face, saying, 'What are you thinking? You never score.' "
Guess what? Ramos scored the only goal as the U.S. national team defeated Costa Rica 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier, a victory that virtually clinched an invitation to the ultimate soccer showdown in France next summer. At the risk of indulging in even more melodrama, it must also be noted that Ramos's feat occurred in his first World Cup qualifying match since the 30-year-old midfielder tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee nine months ago. While Ramos and his teammates acknowledged that the Costa Rica match was critical to the U.S.'s place in the standings of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), the game acquired extra flavor on Aug. 25. On that afternoon Costa Rica coach Juan Luis Hernandez stumbled into an international incident while expressing concern that U.S. newspapers, in covering his team's practices, might expose his tactics. "If they publish that I am going to the White House with a missile to kill President Bill Clinton," Hernandez said, "then the chances are that somebody will be expecting me."
The clumsy and mystifying remark prompted an immediate American response. "Gamesmanship is one thing, but this clearly steps over the line of decency," said U.S. Soccer executive director Hank Steinbrecher. "We as Americans take very seriously any threat to our president." Steinbrecher relayed Hernandez's comment to the White House, which turned the matter over to Secret Service agents, whose stony countenances must have twitched at the folly of the entire episode.
For his part Steinbrecher sought to make Hernandez and his team feel as unwelcome as possible on U.S. soil. The U.S. Federation chose to play the match in Portland, rather than in Los Angeles, Miami or another city where a contingent of Hispanic fans might have turned out in support of Costa Rica. In the past the lure of big paydays landed the American team in home venues where the 12th man was cheering for the visitors, but now U.S. coach Steve Sampson could say, "I think it's likely that for this game we'll be enjoying a home field advantage at home."
The capacity crowd of 27,396 at Civic Stadium did muster plenty of enthusiasm, albeit somewhat orchestrated by a certain local sneaker company of national repute that, in its role as a sponsor of U.S. Soccer, passed out noisemakers and urged fans to wear white clothing as a sign of unity. This request was largely honored, resulting in a scene that could have passed for a convention of some bizarre tennis cult. The charged atmosphere and a network television audience placed even more pressure on Sampson. The U.S. entered the Costa Rica match with an uninspired 1-1-3 record in this final round of World Cup qualifying and had not won a game since March, subjecting Sampson to second-guessing over his lineup selections and his offensive strategy. There was even speculation that if the U.S. continued to struggle, Sampson might be replaced by a high profile (read: foreign) coach. The resulting crisis of confidence among the U.S. players and coaching staff was reflected in a stark pregame admission by Sampson. "This game is not life or death," he said, "but I've asked the players to treat it as such."
Some players sought to keep things in perspective. "We've been answering questions every day, like 'Will American soccer survive if you don't get to the World Cup?' " defender Alexi Lalas said. "Does anybody really think that if we fail to qualify, millions of kids will throw their soccer balls out the window and pick up baseball bats instead?"
While Sampson and his other players were dodging the wrecking ball, Ramos spent six lonely months rehabbing his injured knee. In June he joined the New York/New Jersey Metro-Stars of MLS, and in eight games with them he labored, prompting speculation about whether he could ever regain his top form.
Ramos's return on Sunday was momentarily overshadowed when, just 10 minutes before the game, forward Eric Wynalda scratched himself from the lineup with nagging calf and groin injuries. Without Wynalda, who is the team's alltime leading scorer, the remaining U.S. players appeared reluctant to shoot. The U.S. also was spooked by the loss of regular captain John Harkes, who was sidelined because of an accumulation of yellow cards. The U.S. still dominated play over the first 65 minutes but couldn't produce a goal, and it was beginning to look like zip city in Rip City.
Determined to play for the win instead of settling for a scoreless tie, Sampson sought to spark the attack by making three offensive substitutions midway through the second halt, including the insertion of midfielder Preki Radosavljevic, MLS's leading scorer, in the 73rd minute. Just five minutes later, Radosavljevic maneuvered the ball down the right sideline and crossed a pass that found its way to veteran defender Marcelo Balboa, who had his back to the goal. Balboa smoothly laid the ball back onto the right foot of Ramos, who volleyed a rifle shot from just outside the penalty box that slipped inside the right post. "I saw one third of the goal was open, so I just aimed for that area," Ramos said. "When the ball hit the back of the net, all the frustrations of the last six or eight months melted away."
Ramos celebrated by high-fiving delirious American fans behind the goal. Sampson jumped up and down and clenched his fists in the air. "I felt like an enormous weight was lifted off my shoulders," he said. The three points awarded for the victory (a tie earns one point) lifted the Americans comfortably into second place behind Mexico and ahead of Costa Rica and Jamaica in the six-team CONCACAF round-robin tournament, from which three teams will qualify for the World Cup. As Radosavljevic summarized it, "We put one leg in France today. The other is close behind."