On the eve of the Gold Cup to crown the first champion of soccer's Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), Alan Rothenberg, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, ordered his new coach, Bora Milutinovic, to win so that the U.S. players could practice their victory lap for the 1994 World Cup.
That was evidence that Rothenberg, despite all those years as the NBA Clippers' president, had not lost his sense of humor. The United States, for so long the sleeping giant in the region, figured to be no better than third or fourth best in the eight-team, 10-day tournament.
But since Milutinovic began coaching the team in May, the United States has been aroused, winning five consecutive games for the first time since it started playing the sport in 1885. It scored a remarkable 2-0 upset victory Friday night over Mexico to advance to Sunday's final at the Coliseum against Honduras and won that game, too.
The latter was neither athletically or aesthetically brilliant, but it did keep most of the 39,873 spectators in their places for 120 scoreless minutes--90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime. The tiebreaker, which consisted of penalty kicks, finally put both teams out of their misery before they collapsed.
After neither could connect on more than two of five shots in the first phase of penalty kicks, the United States finally won, 4-3, on the third round of sudden-death, when defender Fernando Clavijo scored and midfielder Juan Carlos Espinoza's retort sailed high over the crossbar.
Holding the Gold Cup trophy aloft, that sent the U.S. players off on that unexpected victory lap, while the crowd chanted, "Bora, Bora, Bora."
Since the arrival of Milutinovic, who coached Mexico in the 1986 World Cup and Costa Rica in the 1990 World Cup, the United States has lost only once in 10 games. On Sunday night, he took his bows, gave his players their due--for persistence, if nothing else--and tried to apply the brakes to rampant optimism.
"After all this work, we have a very competitive team," he said. "But you don't measure soccer in terms of one week."
Certainly, Sunday night's game was one that is not likely to appear in the highlight films of either team. After playing four games since the tournament began on June 28, the players on both teams seemed to be running with weights on their ankles even in the game's early stages.
If the game was scored like a prizefight, the United States would have won the decision on points. It, at least, tried to force the action. The Hondurans just seemed to want to clinch.
"They slowed the game down so much it was unbelievable," Clavijo said. "They really didn't want to run up and down the field with us."
U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola, who had to make only two second-half saves, said he believes Honduras got exactly what it wanted when neither team scored in 120 minutes.
"They were content to let the game go to penalty kicks," he said.
So to penalty kicks the game went, although that is hardly unusual for a championship game. In fact, it is becoming the norm. Within the last few months, the finals of the NCAA tournament, the European Champions Cup and the World Youth Championships have all been decided on penalty kicks after 120 scoreless minutes. Even last year's World Cup almost went into overtime before West Germany won, 1-0, against Argentina on a late penalty kick.
The United States and Honduras found it difficult enough to score even on penalty kicks, which are taken from a spot 15 yards from the goal and usually have about the same success rate as basketball free throws.
Honduras Coach Flavio Ortega replaced his starting goalkeeper, Belarmino Rivera, with Wilmer Cruz in the final minute of overtime in anticipation of the tiebreaker. The fresh Cruz was able to save three of the eight shots that were taken against him. But Meola also saved three.
The most nervous moment for him came on Honduras' fifth and final shot of the first phase of penalty kicks. With the score tied, 2-2, and the United States out of chances, all Antonio Zapata had to do was find the net to give Honduras the championship. But his shot soared over the goal and about halfway to Santa Monica.
Meola, the tournament's most valuable player after allowing three goals in five games, was almost too tired to take the full victory lap around the Coliseum.
"I didn't run half as much as the other guys on the team, but I'm exhausted," he said.
No doubt he and his teammates will have sweet dreams of the championship and the $5,000 per man that comes with it.
The U.S. might also earn an invitation to the most prestigious tournament in South America, the Copa de America, in 1993. But Rothenberg was too busy basking in the victory to think about that.
"Let them come to us," he said.