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In soccer race, U.S. not being lapped anymore Cup run over for American squad, 1-0 WORLD CUP 1994


PALO ALTO, Calif. -- No player threw a chair. No one cursed. Not one tear.

U.S. players talked about being disappointed after yesterday's 1-0 loss to Brazil eliminated the Americans from the World Cup, but the sense of accomplishment exceeded any grief.

"When we started to organize the World Cup, we did not make any assumptions on the U.S. team," said Alan Rothenberg, World Cup '94 chairman and president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "But if someone had told us that we would have reached the final 16 and be within a goal of beating the best team in the world, we would have thought they were crazy.

"When our players get over our defeat, they're going to realize they have been a part of American history," said Rothenberg.

It's been a great run for the Americans. Three years ago, they paid a Serbian-born coach $1.3 million to turn soccer around in this country, and also gave him a new, $3.3 million training facility in Mission Viejo, Calif., which opened 17 months before the World Cup.

Coach Bora Milutinovic took the team -- even with the late arrival of its foreign-based stars -- on a tournament ride that included an upset win over Colombia, a tie against Switzerland and narrow losses to Romania and Brazil.

The previous U.S. World Cup victory had come in 1950.

"We can play with any team in the world," said U.S. midfielder Mike Sorber. "You never know what's going to happen on any given day. One-zero maybe looks good to the rest of the world, but that's not the result we were looking for, so we're disappointed in the loss. But I think we proved that we can play soccer, and play entertaining soccer."

U.S. goalie Tony Meola said: "We have come so far in the last four years, and if we make as much progress in the next four, we'll be a serious contender for the 1998 World Cup."

Something has to be done with Milutinovic first. His contract expires in December. Milutinovic has produced in other countries, leading Mexico to the second round of the 1986 World Cup and Costa Rica to the second round of the 1990 tournament.

Milutinovic and Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira are the first coaches to lead national teams from three different countries to three World Cups.

"I'm happy here," said Milutinovic. "My contract runs through December, so, me, I don't decide plans. People have my fate in their hands."

This was an American team of scrappers and overachievers who listened to what they wanted and disregarded anything else as garbage. They wanted to show the international media that the United States could be host to the event and challenge the competition on the field.

"This was the hardest game that we played so far in this tournament," said Brazil's great forward Bebeto after yesterday's game. "The United States is a world-class team, and we took them very seriously."

"The American team qualified with merit," said Parreira. "Nine players played in the last World Cup. Eight played in Europe. There is no shame anymore in being in such a close game with the American team."

But the United States also had some young players, such as Sorber, forward/midfielder Cobi Jones and defender Alexi Lalas.

"They are fresh out of college," said Milutinovic. "They have faced the players who have the greatest experience in the world. That should show everybody that the U.S. has a great future in soccer."

Several of the Americans said their confidence grew after the 1-1 tie against Switzerland in the opening match, and then took off with the 2-1 upset of Colombia.

"Our great strength was our American mentality," said U.S. forward Ernie Stewart. "We knew who we were playing against in Brazil, and I think we made a respectable showing."

"Nobody is going to take us for granted anymore, and no longer are we happy or satisfied with a respectable loss," said U.S. defender Marcelo Balboa. "I think we've proved throughout this World Cup that we are a very good team."

Rothenberg said he liked the support fans gave the U.S. team, especially in Pontiac, Mich., and here yesterday at Stanford Stadium. He is hoping the enthusiasm carries over into Major League Soccer, the new outdoor professional league being formed in the United States.

Rothenberg said: "We want to develop a sense of realism, first of all. We're not going to get the crowds of 70,000 or 80,000 like we got here, and the caliber of competition won't be as great as the World Cup. But we want to be in a position like basketball was after its first 15 years. We now have the solid foundation."

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