News, especially soccer news, can travel a long, strange path through the wired world. Last Saturday morning Zivko and Ubavka Kirovski were pacing nervously inside their Escondido, Calif., house when the phone rang. Their 22-year-old son, Jovan, was playing for the U.S. against Germany that very moment in Jacksonville, but the game was to be telecast on a tape-delayed basis on the West Coast. It was being shown live in England, though, and now Jovan's Manchester-based agent, Steve Kelly, was on the line. "Jovan just scored the best goal you've ever seen!" Kelly told Ubavka. "Shut up!" she screamed. "You're joking!"
Soccer fans from Boston to Berlin were surely saying the same thing after watching Kirovski's goal in the 16th minute. He drove down the left side, swooped inside defender Markus Babbel and fired a 23-yard rocket at 75 mph into the far corner of the German net. Even more astonishing, the Americans scored twice in the next 10 minutes on goals by midfielders Tony Sanneh and Claudio Reyna. The 3-0 whitewash at Alltel Stadium, the first victory in three matches for new U.S. coach Bruce Arena, was the first in America's seven meetings with a German team, dating back to '72. "I was surprised how much we dominated," said Reyna afterward. "We weren't scared or timid. That was the big difference between this game and the World Cup."
It was in the World Cup last June, you may recall, that German midfielder and chief henchman Jens Jeremies clubbed Reyna into submission during the U.S.'s humiliating 2-0 loss. Payback came last Saturday, especially when Sanneh stripped Jeremies, took off on a breakaway and slotted the ball into a German goal that had suddenly opened as wide as the Rhine. "Bruce had a great game plan," said Sanneh. "We were going to put pressure on them from the beginning. They remembered the World Cup, so I don't think they were expecting that."
To understand Arena, you must first know his predecessor, Steve Sampson, whose regime is now held in the same esteem as the Nixon Administration. Hamstrung by the constant threat of dismissal and dogged by a harder-than-expected World Cup qualification, Sampson stuck with plodding veterans like Alexi Lalas and Roy Wegerle, all but ignoring talented, if inexperienced, players such as Kirovski; Sanneh, 27; Chris Armas, 26; and Eddie Lewis, 24. Those four have since proved themselves on the club level and are now thriving in Arena's midfield.
What's more, after opening the Arena era with scoreless ties against Australia and Bolivia, the U.S. may finally be on the verge of solving its most intractable problem: finding a lineup that can score against a quality opponent. True, Germany is rebuilding under new coach Erich Ribbeck, but the players on the Mannschaft last Saturday weren't scrubs. Although top striker Oliver Bierhoff was missing, the Germans still had more World Cup veterans in their starting lineup (five) than did the U.S. (four).
The Americans controlled the game from the start, abusing Germany's defense with a bold, organized push forward. Finally, their run of 288 scoreless minutes came to an end. "Jovan had a great goal, but it was a fair goal, because until that point we had put our stamp on the game," said Arena, who had moved Kirovski from forward to attacking midfielder upon recalling him last month. "For a while we weren't getting enough out of Jovan in terms of creating chances, but today he made up for all of that."
Why Kirovski wasn't chosen for the '98 World Cup team is one of American soccer's great mysteries. From 1992 to '96 he played on the youth and reserve teams of Manchester United, the world's most famous club. He led Manchester's reserves in '96 with 20 goals in 21 games, and in August of that year the club offered him a four-year, $1.2 million contract, identical to the one it gave English star (and Kirovski contemporary) David Beckham. But because England takes great pains to limit the number of non-European players on its rosters, the British government wouldn't grant Kirovski a work permit—preventing him from playing on United's first team. After scoring five goals in nine games with the U.S. Olympic team in '96, he signed a four-year, $2 million deal with German titan Borussia Dortmund.
Kirovski's fortunes yo-yoed at Dortmund, the 1997 world club champion. Two years ago he became the only American ever to score in the elite European Champions League, and last year he played in 13 Bundesliga games but was only an occasional starter. Sampson used him in only two World Cup qualifiers, and their relationship crumbled after he called Kirovski in for a qualifier against Costa Rica—which hurt Kirovski's club standing—and then left him on the bench. Last spring Kirovski learned that he had been cut from the U.S. team by reading about it in a German newspaper.
This season Dortmund loaned Kirovski to second-division Fortuna Cologne, and he has been playing every week under former Dortmund assistant Toni Schumacher. "It's a smaller club where I knew I'd get a chance to play because Toni was there," says Kirovski. "I needed that experience." (He's scheduled to return to Dortmund next year, but he won't go back, he says, "if I don't get a real chance to play there.")
Just as important, Kirovski is adapting comfortably to his new position in what could become a formidable central mid-field for the next millennium. In Armas, Arena has found a gem: a player who is willing—and able—to do the dirty work of a defensive midfielder. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Reyna is more relaxed under Arena, who was his college coach at Virginia and who has charged Armas and Kirovski with sharing Reyna's offensive and defensive duties. Says Kirovski, "Attacking midfielder is my best position. I get the ball more than I did at forward, I get to come back deeper, and there's not always some body right on my back. For me, it's ideal."