NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — David Vanole, the U.S. goalkeeper, was not certain afterward whether he saw the ball coming toward him. He did know that it bounced off his knee and away from the goal, sparing the United States the embarrassment of another tie at home in a World Cup soccer qualifying game.
It is such a slim difference, that between triumph and despair.
Vanole felt the latter in the United States' last qualifying game at Torrance in May, when Trinidad and Tobago scored with two minutes remaining for a 1-1 tie. He accepted blame for the goal, even though it was not entirely his fault.
Then, in fairness to himself, Vanole, who is from Manhattan Beach, should have accepted credit for the crucial defensive play Saturday at Veterans Memorial Stadium that preserved the United States' 2-1 victory over Guatemala. Instead, he called it luck. But that did not make him any less ecstatic. By any other name, a victory is still a victory.
The game was saved with less than 13 minutes remaining, when Guatemala's Edwin Westphal right-footed a line drive toward the goal from about seven yards away. It might have been a difficult play for Vanole even if he had seen it. Because he did not, it probably was fortunate that his right knee got in the way.
The ball bounced in front of the goal to Guatemala's Adan Paniagua, who headed it back toward Vanole. But he followed that one all the way to end Guatemala's last serious threat.
"The initial save was luck," Vanole said. "But give me credit for being in the right position. I've got to take credit for something."
The victory was considered necessary for the United States in its attempt to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1950. In a five-team qualifying tournament of teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean, the two teams with the best records at the end of the year will advance to the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
The United States had a 1-1-1 record before Saturday, but only two of its remaining five games were at home. So the U.S. players must have been dismayed to discover when they arrived here that about one-third of the 10,561 fans were cheering for Guatemala.
"We had more fans, but they had louder fans," Vanole said.
The United States took the Guatemalan fans out of the game a little more than two minutes into it when forward Bruce Murray of Germantown, Md., scored on a perfect pass from the right corner by John Harkes of Kearney, N.J.
"John should take all the credit," said Murray, who could not capitalize on two other scoring opportunities early in the game. "It was an impossible angle, but he made it happen."
Twenty minutes later, the Guatemalan fans finally had reason to cheer when their exciting young star, Juan Manuel Funes, passed to the right wing to Raul Chacon, whose shot caught Vanole out of position and bounced off the left corner post for a goal.
The United States scored the winning goal 22 minutes into the 45-minute second half, when Eric Eichmann of Margate, Fla., took a header from Steve Trittschuh of Granite City, Ill., and kicked it toward the goal from 10 yards out.
The ball was headed back out by Alejandro Ortiz, but it bounced off the shoulder of teammate Felix McDonald and went back into the goal. The official scorer ruled that Ortiz was behind the goal line when he made the defensive play. So it was Eichmann's goal. But it would have counted for the United States either way.
Guatemala probably lost its last chance to rally when Funes was sent to the sideline for punching Harkes, forcing the visitors to play a man short for the last five minutes.