U.S. Stumbles, Then Earns Tie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Velibor Milutinovic pushed the Boston Red Sox cap farther back on his head, pointed to the letter on the front and grinned.

"My friends," Mexico's coach began in his trademark fractured English, "B is for Boston, also for Bora."

Self-promotion aside, Bora might have added that the B is also for bizarre, as in the United States' 2-2 tie with Mexico in front of a sellout crowd of 57,877 at Foxboro Stadium on Sunday.

In one of the strangest World Cup '98 qualifying games played this year, the United States twice rallied to earn a share of the points with its longtime soccer rival.

There were goats and heroes on both sides of this encounter, and the first cloven-hoofed effort was made by U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller before the match was a minute old.

An ill-conceived and unnecessary back pass from defender Alexi Lalas caught Keller in two minds and his attempted clearance kick slammed into the head of onrushing and leaping Mexican striker Carlos Hermosillo. The ball ricocheted back over Keller and bounced once before coming to rest in the net.

Within 39 seconds, Mexico led, 1-0.

"Obviously, it's not the most ideal way to start a match," U.S. Coach Steve Sampson deadpanned, but Sampson could afford to joke about it because of an equally astonishing miscue by Mexico's Nicolas Ramirez with less than 20 minutes to play.

Trailing, 2-1, the U.S. team was pressing hard for the tying goal. Thomas Dooley, cast in a more offensive role than usual, leaped to reach a cross from Ernie Stewart on the right wing. Instead, the ball fell to Ramirez, who tried to head it out of play, then watched in dismay as it struck the left post and rolled into the net.

Sampson brought in Germany-based forwards David Wagner and Michale Mason for the final 15 minutes and the moves almost paid off.

The added speed tore apart the already overtaxed Mexican defense and U.S. captain John Harkes was unlucky not to score the game-winner when his shot from close range was cleared off the goal line by Joaquin Del Olmo after goalkeeper Adolofo Rios had been beaten.

In the end though, a tie was a fair result between two equally committed teams.

Mexico's chances of winning might have been better had Paraguayan referee Ubaldo Valenzano not red-carded Luis Hernandez for a minor foul midway through the second half, forcing the visitors to play a man short.

Able to shake off Keller's early faux pas, the American team fought back to tie the score 10 minutes before halftime.

After Mexican defender Duilio Davino had been yellow-carded for dangerous play--he kicked Claudio Reyna in the shoulder--Reyna sent the resulting free kick into the goalmouth.

The ball was headed out by a Mexican defender, but headed back in by Eric Wynalda. In the scramble for the ball, Lalas fell over, further distracting the Mexican defense, and Eddie Pope, rushing in at the far post, slammed the ball into the net.

It was the Washington D.C. United player's second goal in only his eighth international match.

Mexico regained the advantage in the 54th minute, however, when playmaker Benjamin Galindo sent a pass up the right flank that caught the U.S. defense flat-footed. That allowed Hernandez to sprint in, one-on-one against Keller in a race for the loose ball.

Hernandez got there first and calmly chipped it over the keeper's head to make the score 2-1 in Mexico's favor. But with Hernandez subsequently sent off and Ramirez's unfortunate own goal, 2-2 was how it ended up.

"This team played the best brand of soccer today that I've seen in a long time," Sampson said of the U.S. effort. "We played with poise, we played with confidence. To come back twice and then at the end to create numerous [scoring] opportunities showed that this team has the confidence to play to win and that we were not satisfied with a tie."

The result leaves Mexico first in the six-nation group with eight points. The U.S. is second with five, followed by Costa Rica with four and Canada, El Salvador and Jamaica with one apiece. The top three qualify for France '98.

The United States' next game is at El Salvador on June 29.

As for Bora, he was still busy signing his autograph on Mexican flags and programs and T-shirts and scraps of paper. His popularity remains as strong as it was when he coached the United States.

B is also for un-B-lievable.

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