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WORLD CUP USA '94 / THE FIRST ROUND : It's a Day for Defense, a Day for Destiny : Group A: Whether by impulse or design, Clavijo plays, Kooiman sits and Colombia's Asprilla is neutralized in 2-1 U.S. victory.

June 23, 1994|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When these moments of wonder occur, when the World Cup is shaken by an event it either can't explain or can't understand, a higher being is usually assigned all the credit.

So in 1986, we have the Hand of God--Diego Maradona's smirking rationale for the goal he scored by balling up his fist and punching the ball, illegally, but without penalty, past the English goalkeeper.

And now, thanks to two American goals scored against Colombia on Wednesday, one of them scored by a Colombian, we have the Act of God.

That had to be the reason for the United States' 2-1 victory over must-win, can't-lose Colombia, right?

The Rose Bowl witnessed a miracle on this day, didn't it, Alexi Lalas?

For the first time since the referee blew the final whistle, Lalas stopped smiling.

"A miracle?" Lalas roared, fixing his eyes on the offending questioner.

"Hell no. A miracle is a baby surviving a plane crash or something like that.

"This is not a miracle."

Down the hallway amid the pushing, shoving media in what is known ever so politely as "the mixed zone," teammate Cle Kooiman saw things somewhat differently.

Kooiman, usually a starting outside defender for the United States, had been benched by Coach Bora Milutinovic in favor of Fernando Clavijo, 37, who was assigned to mark the fleetest feet on the Colombian roster, the ones belonging to goal machine Faustino Asprilla.

On paper, it made no sense.

There goes crazy Bora again, acting on one of those wild, impulsive, don't-ask-why whims of his.

So Clavijo, with occasional double-team help from Lalas, frustrated Asprilla so thoroughly that Colombia Coach Francisco Maturana pulled him at halftime. And Clavijo saved the day by clearing out a loose ball during a dangerous first-half flurry around the American net.

"Bora called it," Kooiman said, shaking his head in amazement. "The man's a miracle worker.

"He knew exactly what to do. I don't start, he puts Fernando in there because he's very quick. He did everything he could to put the best team out on the field."

From the U.S. bench, Kooiman watched one of the greatest upsets in the history of the World Cup.

What was he going to do in the aftermath?

Complain?

"Fernando came in and did a great job," Kooiman said. "It was Bora's call, and if he can keep doing it, more power to him.

"I'm a team guy. Today, I'm just happy to be here, to be on the team. I sat on the bench, but right now, I feel like I played an entire game. I got chills out there. Near the end, I felt like crying."

For the maligned American back line, this was vindication and validation of the grandest order. The pregame consensus held that there was no way for the U.S. defense to stop the Asprilla Express and Carlos Valderrama.

Lalas was too slow. Kooiman was too jittery. Paul Caligiuri was too small.

Clavijo, who hadn't played in months, was too old, too rusty.

Yet this defensive unit has held Switzerland and Colombia to two goals in 180 World Cup minutes. Wednesday, it was seconds away from a shutout, Adolfo Valencia breaking through in the 90th minute.

A miracle?

"No one understands Latin American football better than Bora," U.S. assistant coach Steve Sampson said. "He knows about the pride of the Colombians, how they always play within their system, even if they're down, 2-0.

"You saw it today. They never kicked a long ball and tried to run under it. They kept the ball in the center of the field, moving it downfield with five-, 10-yard passes."

And that played right into the Americans' defensive strengths, such as they are. So they dropped six, seven and sometimes eight defenders, clogged the middle and watched in amazement as Colombian heads began to hang as attack after attack was blunted.

Most of the Americans were startled to see Maturana remove Asprilla for the second half, but not the American closest to Asprilla in the first half.

"He didn't do anything," Clavijo said. "He should be ashamed of himself. Not only didn't he play well, he didn't even try."

A miracle? Maybe many, many years from now, by the time Lalas gets through with twisting the tale.

"I'll be 80," Lalas said, "and some punk reporter will come up to me and say, 'Hey, didn't you play in that great game back in '94?'

"And I'll say, 'Sure, kid' and I'll embellish everything. I'll tell him I dribbled through half the team and won the game by myself."

Lalas laughed. No need to get defensive now.

"Yeah," he said, "it'll probably sound a whole lot better 100 years from now."

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