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Late Sunday afternoon, El Salvador was struck by the full force of Hurricane Hugo. And the goal that Hugo Perez scored for the U.S. national soccer team in the second half of a game against the Salvadorans was hurricane enough to blow the losers right out of the World Cup race and keep the U.S. in the chase for a spot in the Cup finals.
Hurricane is not really a fitting moniker for Perez, a slight, mop-headed midfielder who, far from huffing and puffing, glides his way across the field, imposing his own gentle tempo on the play. Nonetheless, his header past El Salvador goalkeeper Carlos Rivera was enough to propel the U.S. to a 1-0 triumph and reaffirm him as U.S. soccer's touch of class.
Perez had been sorely missed during the first four games of qualifying. He had been recuperating from a stress fracture of the right lower leg, which had sidelined him on and off for a year. The match against El Salvador marked his return to World Cup competition, and it could not have been more timely. Last spring, qualifying for the 52-game World Cup finals—scheduled for next summer in Italy—had looked to be a waltz for the U.S. team, but without the 25-year-old Perez to lead the Yanks, the waltz had turned into an agonizingly slow march.
In April, the U.S. had suffered a morale-dampening 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, which leads the five countries in the North and Central American and Caribbean zone qualifying tournament. The first- and second-place finishers in that tournament will advance to the finals. The U.S. held on to second place for a while, but in August a big, bustling Trinidad and Tobago team, with a penchant for knocking in late winning goals, ran its record to 2-1-3 and pushed the 2-1-1 Americans into third.
Still, the U.S., seeking its first appearance in the Cup finals since 1950, was not out of the race. In Cup qualifying, a team gets two points for a win, one for a tie. Though the U.S. trailed Trinidad and Tobago by four points going into Sunday's game, it had played three fewer games. The match against El Salvador was its first chance to play catch-up.
In addition to the return of Perez, the U.S. had a bit of luck going for it: The game had been originally scheduled to be played in the Salvadoran capital, San Salvador, but fan violence there in June, during a qualifying match against Costa Rica, had caused FIFA—soccer's ruling body—to move El Salvador's future games to neutral ground.
Neutral ground for the match against the U.S. was Estadio Nacional in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 125 miles from San Salvador. The U.S. team flew into the Honduran capital last Friday and practiced in scudding rain. No banners greeted them, only ragged child beggars. Tegucigalpa is nestled in a crucible of spectacular green hills, but its poverty is plain. The people have one diversion, f�tbol. Those child beggars spend hours kicking balls around the muddy barrios where they live.
Indeed, the passion for soccer is universal in Latin America, which is why the U.S. team did not expect this "neutral" site to work in its favor. Before the game, one Honduran, former army sergeant Marnano Zepeda, sat inside the Cafe Marbella, a downtown hangout for soccer fans, and confirmed that his countrymen would cheer for the Salvadorans. "Because we are the same people," he said proudly. "We are Latinos."
The headline in La Tribuna that morning bore him out. Translated, it read, EL SALVADOR HOPES TO DAMAGE GRINGOS. As U.S. coach Bob Gansler had said, "Let's say that Honduras is more neutral for them than it is for us."
Though El Salvador went into the game with only a scant mathematical chance of qualifying to play in Italy, Gansler was fully aware how dangerous a team with nothing to lose can be. He also knew how valuable Perez would be in such a situation. "Hugo gives us an extra dimension," he said confidently. "I think we'll do well."