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Ramos Keeps U.S. on Course

Soccer: World Cup '98 chances look better after midfielder scores for a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.

September 08, 1997|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND — The United States defeated Costa Rica, 1-0, Sunday in a crucial qualifying match for soccer's 1998 World Cup.

So much for the news.

Behind the bare headline, however, there were all sorts of plots and subplots.

There was, for instance, striker Eric Wynalda's bizarre withdrawal from the starting lineup, less than 15 minutes before kickoff. The U.S. team's all-time leading scorer took himself out of contention, saying he was not match fit.

Then there was the surprise inclusion of forward Roy Wegerle on the team,

more than two years since his last appearance. Wegerle was called in Thursday and barely had time to renew acquaintances before being thrust into a starting role.

There was also the even more surprising exclusion of Alexi Lalas, the red-headed troubadour and defensive mainstay for the team for the last four years. He never made it off the bench.

But none of that really mattered Sunday, when a sellout crowd of 27,369 at Civic Stadium saw Tab Ramos make a long-awaited and ultimately triumphant return to the U.S. team.

It was Ramos' goal, in the 78th minute of a nail-biting match, that earned the United States its victory and put it squarely on the road to France '98.

Two more victories in its final four qualifying matches and the U.S. will be in the World Cup for the third time running.

And it will have been a trio of old-timers that helped get it there. Were it not for Ramos' shot, Marcelo Balboa's unselfishness and Preki's creative brilliance, it all could have gone horribly wrong for Steve Sampson's team.

In a game the United States dominated but could not put away, the old guard came through at the end. Ramos is two weeks shy of his 31st birthday, Balboa turned 30 last month and Preki is 34.

Sent on as a substitute in the 73rd minute, Preki danced past a defender on the right flank and crossed the ball to Balboa in the penalty area. Balboa, instead of shooting, rolled it back into the path of the onrushing Ramos, whose shot from about 20 yards flew arrow-straight and buried itself in the back of the Costa Rican net.

"Marcelo realized he couldn't shoot and he laid a perfect ball back to me right on my right foot," Ramos said. "And I think you can only do these kinds of things when you've played together for a long time. Because he knew exactly what foot to put it back on and at what speed. I had about a third of the goal that I could shoot at and that's where I shot it. Luckily, the keeper couldn't get there in time.

"And when the ball hit the back of the net it was almost like, 'OK, I'm finally back.' I think it was certainly the most special goal I've ever scored."

It was last November, in a World Cup qualifying match in Port of Spain, Trinidad, that Ramos ruined his left knee, tearing ligaments that required surgery and a six-month layoff.

Sunday's game was his first World Cup qualifying match since then.

For Preki, too, the victory meant a lot. Having been dropped from the team because of attitude problems--demanding to start and arguing against being used as a role player off the bench--he was being given another chance.

He made the most of it and afterward was elated. He did not want to take credit, however, for his substitution changing the chemistry of the match, even though it did.

"I don't know if it did or not," he said. "But it doesn't matter now. We got three points, that's all that matters now. We're in second place and hopefully we're on our way to France."

The U.S. has nine points, two fewer than Mexico but one more than both Costa Rica and Jamaica, which defeated Canada, 1-0, in Kingston on Sunday. El Salvador has six points and Canada five. The U.S. team's next game is against Jamaica at RFK Stadium in Washington on Oct. 3.

Costa Rica was missing four or five of its starters due to injury or suspension, but Sampson, the U.S. coach, denied that it was a poor team.

"I don't think they were weak," he said. "I think they played for a tie. A point against the United States away from home is a very positive result for them. They played very defensive-minded, but Costa Rica's not out of it by any stretch of the imagination.

" I'm very, very proud at this moment and I think we're well on our way [toward qualifying], but we have to enjoy this match for the next 24 hours, party, celebrate and then focus on Jamaica because that match will be equally as important as this."

Juan Luis Hernandez, Costa Rica's volatile coach, was gracious in defeat. "I honestly feel that the score could have been 0-0," he said. "It was a great goal by Ramos. He took the chances when it was there."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

World Cup '98 CONCACAF Table

*--*

Country W L T GF GA Pts Mexico 3 0 2 13 2 11 U.S. 2 1 3 9 6 9 Costa Rica 2 3 2 7 7 8 Jamaica 2 2 2 2 9 8 El Salvador 1 2 3 3 4 6 Canada 1 3 2 1 8 5

*--*

The top three finishers qualify for France '98.

Sunday: U.S. 1, Costa Rica 0; Jamaica 1, Canada 0

U.S. GAMES REMAINING

Oct. 3: Jamaica at U.S.

Nov. 2: U.S. at Mexico.

Nov. 9: U.S. at Canada.

Nov. 16: El Salvador at U.S.

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