SEATTLE — The faintest of smiles played across Bora Milutinovic's face, lingered, then disappeared. The coach of the U.S. national soccer team had almost praised his team in a manner previously unknown to him.
What drove Milutinovic to the brink of a superlative was his team's come-from-behind heroics Saturday night to tie a jetlagged Russian team, 1-1, before 43,651 raucous fans in the Kingdome.
Defender Alexi Lalas scored off a header with five minutes remaining for the United States.
It was the third time in three games this month that the United States has come back with a late goal. It opened with a 2-1 upset of Norway on Jan. 15 and a 1-1 tie against Switzerland on Jan. 22. Each time the U.S. team fell behind, and each time the players have come back.
It is that characteristic that prompted Milutinovic to admit that the team's last three games, taken together, have been their finest.
"These are the best," he said, shrugging.
Even the taciturn Russian coach, who has been staving off an insurrection on his team this week, remarked about the Americans' resolve.
"They have a lot of drive to win," Pavel Sadyrin said through an interpreter. "The most important thing for them is that they want to win."
Sadyrin's team looked sluggish in the first half, understandable given its itinerary. The team arrived here late Friday night after a 17-hour flight and a 24-hour travel day. Before they left Moscow, the Russians were halved, as 14 national team members signed a petition seeking the removal of Sadyrin as coach.
The internal struggle, plus travel delays, left the Russian players tired and the coach cranky. Sadyrin dismissed the problems as "normal" and added somewhat cryptically: "In soccer, there are always replacements."
It was unclear whether he was referring to players or coaches.
The newly confident U.S. team put together what was perhaps its best half of play in Saturday's first half. Dominic Kinnear was the creative force at midfield and exploited space on the wings by getting the ball to Chris Henderson on the right and Cobi Jones on the left.
"The tone was set in the locker room (before the game)," Kinnear said. "We took a look at them in warmups and they looked tired. We decided to jump on them right away. We knew they had a long journey."
And a hard road in the game. The United States won most of the balls, controlled the game in the first half and got a few scoring chances. The Americans also surprised the Russians with their willingness to match physical play.
Russia scored on one of only three shots they took, when Oleg Salenko lofted a lead pass to Dmitri Radchenko. Radchenko caught the U.S. defenders out of position, and his uncontested shot eluded Tony Meola in the 52nd minute.
In not-so-distant days, the U.S. team might have given up after falling behind. But this team exuded confidence in its ability to come back.
"We were confident that we could score," said Lalas. "We don't panic."
Lalas' goal came in a familiar fashion--off a set play and off his head.
Claudio Reyna, in as a substitute, was preparing to take a free kick from 30 yards. But as he saw a defender charging, Reyna opted to dribble the ball to space. Free of the Russian defender, Reyna spotted to Mike Lapper on the left side and sent the ball to him.
Lapper shot a pinpoint cross to Lalas, who headed the ball in for the score in the 85th minute.
"It was an unbelievable ball from Mike Lapper," Lalas said.