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Certain things just don't happen in sports. Har-Tru doesn't get laid down at Wimbledon, outboard motors don't power shells at Henley, and the United States most assuredly does not beat the mother country in soccer. England has won—or England have won, as the Brits would put t—every match between the two countries except for the astonishing 1-0 upset by the U.S. in the 1950 World Cup. In soccer, football, "footy" or whatever you choose to call it, nothing other than a win by England is possible, entertainable or within reason. Just use your head.
Which the Yanks did. Twice, in fact, scoring two goals on headers in an epochal 2-0 victory over England on June 9 in Foxboro, Mass., that caused wags in the press box to tap out dispatches invoking 1776 and all that. The U.S. lost its other two matches in the U.S. Cup, a two-week, four-nation round-robin tournament that served as a dress rehearsal for the U.S. in its role as host of the 1994 World Cup. On June 6 the U.S. was shut out by Brazil 2-0, and on Sunday it fell to defending world champion Germany 4-3. But those losses didn't matter, just as it didn't matter that England was missing Paul (Gazza) Gascoigne, the midfielder who's among the finest players in the world, or that the Brits may not even qualify for next summer's World Cup. England is still England, the team that came within a couple of penalty kicks of the 1990 World Cup final, and yet the U.S. won. "If this isn't on the front page of every paper tomorrow, I don't know what we have to do," said U.S. midfielder John Harkes. "They've given us the World Cup, and now we've shown we can play at this level."
The U.S. upset was all over the English papers, but it was reduced to little more than agate in much of the United States. Still, the U.S. Cup has been a success off the field as well as on. Through Sunday, crowds averaging 45,000 had not only turned out but actually behaved themselves, meaning that the World Cup venue city of Orlando, Fla., where the county sheriff recently requisitioned an armored vehicle in anticipation of hooliganism next June, might consider chilling out a bit. The biggest revelation was that the U.S. appears capable of playing with the best in the world. Even the pooh-bahs of the Zurich-based Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the international governing body that owns the World Cup and hopes its staging here will help flog the sport to Americans, must have been astonished.
No one is promising a Lake Placid-style Miracle on Grass from the team that found itself overmatched against Brazil. But three players with international experience—Tab Ramos, who plays in the Spanish second division, and Thomas Dooley and Eric Wynalda, who play in Germany's first division—joined the U.S. for the game against England and made an instant difference. Late in the first half, as visiting members of Parliament looked on in horror, Ramos launched a smart cross and Tom Dooley hung down his head and met the ball, knocking it past English goalkeeper Chris Woods.
Early in the second half Dooley, who is the product of a brief union between an American serviceman and a German woman and only recently learned to speak English, limped off with an ankle injury. His replacement, Alexi Lalas, hails from Birmingham—no, not the one in England, but the decidedly non-working-class suburb of Detroit—and plays bass in a rock band called the Gypsies. The first time he touched the ball he nodded approvingly at a corner kick from Ramos, and suddenly the U.S. had scored on a second header.
All evening long the English had chances to beat U.S. goalie Tony Meola, who made 15 saves. Their two best opportunities came in the final 10 minutes of the match, both off the foot of striker Ian Wright. Meola dived to his right to deflect the first one and, barely a minute later, smothered the second at point-blank range.
All in all it was a welcome result for U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic, whose seven-year-old daughter, Darinka, had demanded to know earlier that day whether Papa's team would win.
"Why, of course," Bora found himself saying. "It's your birthday, and this will be your birthday present."
Milutinovic is a transplanted Serb who has spent much of his life coaching in Central America, where he picked up a reputation as a quadrennial wonder worker. He took Mexico to the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup and guided Costa Rica into the second round in '90. He answers questions with habitual shrugs of his shoulders, an armor-plated smile and oblique Spanglish. His Latin-style "build from the back" attack relies on a patient series of passes, and his conservative 5-4-1 formation, in which five defenders patrol the backfield rather than the more common four, provides Meola with a convoy of support. But on offense the U.S. scheme can sometimes be Bora-ing. The U.S. had failed to score a goal for 389 consecutive minutes before last week and had won only one of their previous 15 matches. But those games were played without most of their international ringers. And even when he has the services of such English Premier League veterans as Harkes and forward Roy Wegerle, Milutinovic realizes his team could get pummeled if it were to play recklessly. Against superior opponents, his style can keep the U.S. close.
Like the U.S. team. World Cup USA 1994, Inc., the nonprofit organization established by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) to stage the world's most-watched sporting spectacle, has had its difficulties. In 1991 World Cup USA organizers rigged up a 48-foot display trailer to take the Cup itself on a barnstorming tour of shopping malls and convention centers. The Trophy Tour hemorrhaged money, and after six months World Cup USA chief executive officer and USSF president Alan Rothenberg finally put a stop to it. Heavy turnover in some top executive positions led to costly contract settlements and left FIFA officials alarmed. Striker, the World Cup '94 mascot, appeared in early renderings wearing a jersey with horizontal stripes (common to rugby, not soccer) and with a ball wedged under his arm (a flagrant violation of the rules). There was also trouble when the organizers held a private ticket sale for the U.S. "soccer family" and so badly underestimated demand that they wound up having to stiff thousands of the sport's devotees.