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Original Issue


Tab Ramos apologizes up front if the following story sounds a
little too much like the script of a B movie. "O.K., I know how
silly this seems," Ramos was saying on Sunday night, "but I
swear, when I woke up this morning, I was lying back on my
pillow, and I had this vision that I would score a goal, and
we'd go on to beat Costa Rica 1-0. Then I snapped out of it, and
I was smacking myself in the face, saying, 'What are you
thinking? You never score.'"

Guess what? Ramos scored the only goal as the U.S. national team
defeated Costa Rica 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier, a victory that
virtually clinched an invitation to the ultimate soccer showdown
in France next summer. At the risk of indulging in even more
melodrama, it must also be noted that Ramos's feat occurred in
his first World Cup qualifying match since the 30-year-old
midfielder tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee
nine months ago. While Ramos and his teammates acknowledged that
the Costa Rica match was critical to the U.S.'s place in the
standings of the Confederation of North, Central America and
Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), the game acquired
extra flavor on Aug. 25. On that afternoon Costa Rica coach Juan
Luis Hernandez stumbled into an international incident while
expressing concern that U.S. newspapers, in covering his team's
practices, might expose his tactics. "If they publish that I am
going to the White House with a missile to kill President Bill
Clinton," Hernandez said, "then the chances are that somebody
will be expecting me."

The clumsy and mystifying remark prompted an immediate American
response. "Gamesmanship is one thing, but this clearly steps
over the line of decency," said U.S. Soccer executive director
Hank Steinbrecher. "We as Americans take very seriously any
threat to our president." Steinbrecher relayed Hernandez's
comment to the White House, which turned the matter over to
Secret Service agents, whose stony countenances must have
twitched at the folly of the entire episode.

For his part Steinbrecher sought to make Hernandez and his team
feel as unwelcome as possible on U.S. soil. The U.S. Federation
chose to play the match in Portland, rather than in Los Angeles,
Miami or another city where a contingent of Hispanic fans might
have turned out in support of Costa Rica. In the past the lure
of big paydays landed the American team in home venues where the
12th man was cheering for the visitors, but now U.S. coach Steve
Sampson could say, "I think it's likely that for this game we'll
be enjoying a home field advantage at home."

The capacity crowd of 27,396 at Civic Stadium did muster plenty
of enthusiasm, albeit somewhat orchestrated by a certain local
sneaker company of national repute that, in its role as a
sponsor of U.S. Soccer, passed out noisemakers and urged fans to
wear white clothing as a sign of unity. This request was largely
honored, resulting in a scene that could have passed for a
convention of some bizarre tennis cult. The charged atmosphere
and a network television audience placed even more pressure on
Sampson. The U.S. entered the Costa Rica match with an
uninspired 1-1-3 record in this final round of World Cup
qualifying and had not won a game since March, subjecting
Sampson to second-guessing over his lineup selections and his
offensive strategy. There was even speculation that if the U.S.
continued to struggle, Sampson might be replaced by a high
profile (read: foreign) coach. The resulting crisis of
confidence among the U.S. players and coaching staff was
reflected in a stark pregame admission by Sampson. "This game is
not life or death," he said, "but I've asked the players to
treat it as such."

Some players sought to keep things in perspective. "We've been
answering questions every day, like 'Will American soccer
survive if you don't get to the World Cup?'" defender Alexi
Lalas said. "Does anybody really think that if we fail to
qualify, millions of kids will throw their soccer balls out the
window and pick up baseball bats instead?"

While Sampson and his other players were dodging the wrecking
ball, Ramos spent six lonely months rehabbing his injured knee.
In June he joined the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of MLS, and
in eight games with them he labored, prompting speculation about
whether he could ever regain his top form.

Ramos's return on Sunday was momentarily overshadowed when, just
10 minutes before the game, forward Eric Wynalda scratched
himself from the lineup with nagging calf and groin injuries.
Without Wynalda, who is the team's alltime leading scorer, the
remaining U.S. players appeared reluctant to shoot. The U.S.
also was spooked by the loss of regular captain John Harkes, who
was sidelined because of an accumulation of yellow cards. The
U.S. still dominated play over the first 65 minutes but couldn't
produce a goal, and it was beginning to look like zip city in
Rip City.

Determined to play for the win instead of settling for a
scoreless tie, Sampson sought to spark the attack by making
three offensive substitutions midway through the second half,
including the insertion of midfielder Preki Radosavljevic, MLS's
leading scorer, in the 73rd minute. Just five minutes later,
Radosavljevic maneuvered the ball down the right sideline and
crossed a pass that found its way to veteran defender Marcelo
Balboa, who had his back to the goal. Balboa smoothly laid the
ball back onto the right foot of Ramos, who volleyed a rifle
shot from just outside the penalty box that slipped inside the
right post. "I saw one third of the goal was open, so I just
aimed for that area," Ramos said. "When the ball hit the back of
the net, all the frustrations of the last six or eight months
melted away."

Ramos celebrated by high-fiving delirious American fans behind
the goal. Sampson jumped up and down and clenched his fists in
the air. "I felt like an enormous weight was lifted off my
shoulders," he said. The three points awarded for the victory (a
tie earns one point) lifted the Americans comfortably into
second place behind Mexico and ahead of Costa Rica and Jamaica
in the six-team CONCACAF round-robin tournament, from which
three teams will qualify for the World Cup. As Radosavljevic
summarized it, "We put one leg in France today. The other is
close behind."

After the game, Ramos vowed to brush up on his French but said
he has no plans to audition for the Psychic Friends Network. "I
hate to even admit the premonition thing because now my
teammates will be teasing me, asking me to predict the outcome
before every game," Ramos said. "But I'll live with it because
that shot erases a lot of doubts about myself and this team.
It's amazing what a huge difference one goal can make."

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Ramos made his return to the U.S. team a smashing success by delivering the game's only score. [Tab Ramos and others in game]