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U.S. NEEDED A MIRACLE TO SUCCEED, SO IT TURNED TO BORA MILUTINOVIC

SHARE U.S. NEEDED A MIRACLE TO SUCCEED, SO IT TURNED TO BORA MILUTINOVIC

As the shock waves from the U.S. national soccer team's 2-1 World Cup upset over Colombia continue to reverberate, reports from any number of world soccer outposts suggest that the Colombians should have seen this one coming - and so should have the Americans.

In Mexico, in Costa Rica, and even in war-torn Serbia-Crotia, they're saying "I told you so." Everytime Bora Milutinovic shows up at the World Cup, the team he's coaching turns out to be the one carrying the rabbit's foot and four-leaf clover, and the smiles.This time the team he's coaching is the United States.

The 49-year-old Milutinovic, a Serbian who was born and raised in the former republic of Yugoslavia, is soccer's answer to Larry Brown. He specializes in results, not longevity. His jet stream is littered with W's. What he did Wednesday when the U.S. beat a Colombian team that had been predicted by no less an expert than Pele to win this year's championship was what he had done before - with somebody else.

In his World Cup coaching debut in 1986 Milutinovic guided Mexico, the host team, to a resounding sixth place finish. The Mexican nationals never lost a match in five tries in that tournament and were only eliminated after a penalty kick showdown with eventual runner-up West Germany after the two teams played to a 0-0 tie in regulation.

By the time the 1990 World Cup rolled around in Italy, Milutinovic had been hired by the nation of Costa Rica to coach it's Cup team. The words "Costa Rica" hardly sent waves of fear through the rest of the '90 World Cup field, but in the first round the Costa Ricans defeated Scotland and Sweden and barely lost by a goal to powerful Brazil. Just like that, the Costa Ricans had advanced, against all odds, into the second round - which is where the U.S., in the wake of the Colombian triumph, is heading four years later.

When soccer people call Milutinovic the "miracle worker" in a variety of languages - and with a variety of adjectives - it is not hollow praise.

Knowing it could use a miracle as much, or more, as the next country, The United States hired Milutinovic to lead its national team not long after the '90 Cup - well in advance of the '94 Cup to be held in America.

Some miracles take longer than others.

This one took about four years.

When they examined Colombia after Wednesday's match, Milutinovic's prints were everywhere.

His most telling strategic move was the insertion of rarely used midfielder Fernando Clavijo into the lineup in place of usual starter Cle Kooiman. Clavijo is 37 years old and considered well past his prime, his usefulness primarily as a practice player.

But Milutinovic wanted Clavijo to defend Faustino Asprilla, Colombia's goal-scoring leader. He sensed that Clavijo, a native of Uruguay, understood the South American style better than anyone on the team - and would be less prone to become exasperated by Asprilla's penchant for unpredictability.

As it turned out, coach Bora was right. Asprilla was ineffective, and eventually taken out of the game, as Clavijo played the game of his career.

Even the man Bora benched marveled at how well the strategy worked.

"Bora called it," said Kooiman. "The man's a miracle worker. He knew exactly what to do. He did everything he could to put the best team out on the field. If he can keep doing it, more power to him."

Another Bora tactic during the Colombian match was telling about the coaches' chess-like intensity.

With the U.S. ahead 1-0 late in the first half, Bora left early for the locker room. With two minutes still to play, he was outta there.

As Bora explained afterward, "In important games I always try to leave the field early so I can prepare what I have to say at halftime. I need to be in the room in time to be ready to speak to the players."

Coach Bora did not go into detail about just what he told his U.S. players - but it was inspiring enough to produce a second American goal just minutes into the second half - the goal that broke Colombia's back.

Wednesday's win extended Bora's personal World Cup record to six wins, two losses and three ties in three World Cups - and that's with three teams nobody ever confused with the Brazilians or the Germans.

"I realized how difficult the conditions were that we were up against," said Bora following the Colombian shocker.

That, as it turned out, was Colombia's loss, and America's gain.