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Almost precisely a decade after the U.S. Hockey team's miracle on ice, the U.S. soccer team tried to pull off a miracle in the sun. But this time the dream died early, and its epitaph was uttered by Valeri Lobanovski, chief coach of Soviet soccer, with dour and formal politeness. "We would like to compliment the determination of our opponents," he said after an easy 3-1 win last Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif. "The players of the U.S. national team gave everything they had to give today."
Then he added patronizingly, "I think that this is one of the better games that they have demonstrated to their people so far." Thank you, Comrade Lobanovski, and goodnight.
Saturday should have been a fun day for the U.S. team. The sun was out, and more than 60,000 fans had crowded into Stanford Stadium, the largest turnout for a U.S. home game since the '84 Summer Olympics. On the eve of last week's game, Paul Caligiuri, the hero of the U.S. win over Trinidad and Tobago last November that clinched a berth for the U.S. in the World Cup finals beginning this June in Italy, said, "A stadium full of Americans, waving American flags. This is something we've been starved of for years."
However, that was before, in a misjudgment that would cost the Americans dearly, coach Bob Gansler left Caligiuri out of the starting lineup. Not surprisingly, that decision did nothing to lift the team's already sagging morale.
By contrast, the Soviets had come to town radiating good cheer. During practice last Friday, they joked around with the press photographers and looked relaxed, despite a grueling whirlwind tour, which included a 20-hour flight from Rome on Monday and two Marlboro Cup matches in Los Angeles over the next three days. The U.S.S.R. lost the first game, 1-0 to Colombia on a penalty-kick shoot-out, and had to scramble to beat Costa Rica 2-1 in the second. Indeed, the Soviets seemed more interested in emptying the shelves of every Radio Shack they could find in Southern California than in winning games. In the three days they were there, they accumulated so much electronic hardware that they had to rent an extra hotel room to hold their goodies.
Before the U.S.- U.S.S.R. match, many soccer observers believed the Americans had their best chance in years to improve on their 0-4 record against the Soviets. Though the game had been advertised as the "Supreme Soccer Summit," only three or four of the players who are likely to start for the U.S.S.R. in the World Cup finals were in Palo Alto. Among the missing were Alexei Mikhailichenko, the gifted midfielder who had stayed behind in Italy to have knee surgery, and several other players, such as Alexander Zavarov, Sergei Aleinikov and Rinat Dasaev, who were tied up with their European club teams. What's more, Oleg Protasov, one of the few Soviet stars who made the U.S. trip, was sidelined for half the game by an attack of diarrhea.
The U.S. looked good in the opening minutes of the match. There was midfielder Tab Ramos stealing the ball from midfielder Ivan Yaremchuk. There was forward Peter Vermes knocking a header just wide of the near post. There was goalie Tony Meola making a booming drop kick all the way to forward Bruce Murray in the Soviet's penalty box.
Then, suddenly, the U.S. defense fell apart. On a Soviet attack, sweeper Mike Windischmann and defender Jimmy Banks got tangled up in front of their own goal and almost collided with Meola. Moments later the Big Red machine worked the ball to defender Vladimir Bessonov, who fired a shot past Meola at 28:40 for the game's first score. "After that," said Meola later, "the Russians were in my face all afternoon."
Something had gone very wrong with the U.S. defensive stategy. Even Gansler, after his customary put-down of his players as unsophisticated and inexperienced, admitted that he had made an error. Having anticipated fast Soviet wing play, Gansler had pulled the naturally aggressive Ramos back and instructed Banks to play as a free-lance defender. But that didn't seem to deter the Soviets. "They spread us out wide," said Gansler. Or as Meola put it somewhat more graphically, "They were up and down our wings like they were on train tracks."
With three minutes remaining in the first half, the U.S. got a brief reprieve. The refs called a questionable foul on Soviet defender Oleg Luzhny after Vermes collided with him in the box. Then U.S. midfielder John Harkes slammed in the penalty shot to tie the score at 1-1.