In the end, in St. Louis on Sunday, the U.S.'s hopes of eventually making it to the finals of the World Cup in Italy next year came down to two players, only one of them from the U.S. He was goaltender David Vanole, of Manhattan Beach, Calif. Since 1986, Vanole, 26, has been the starting goalie for the U.S. team. But three weeks ago, just before the first game of a home-and-home series with Costa Rica, he had lost the position, some say because he had allowed his weight to swell to 235 pounds.
By Sunday's rematch, though, Vanole was down to 220 and back in his starting role. Now, in the dying minutes of the game, Vanole and his teammates were under heavy pressure as they clung to a 1-0 lead. Less than a minute before the end of the game, the Costa Ricans, who had played aggressive soccer all afternoon, came raiding again. Vanole went out after a centered ball and missed it.
Behind him the net gaped empty, and it looked as though Costa Rica would follow up for an easy tying goal. Quickly, U.S. defender Steve Trittschuh ran to the goal line and did the sensible thing: He reached out to deflect the ball with his hands, preventing a goal but earning a penalty shot for Costa Rica.
Suddenly, the American fortunes were in the hands—or at the feet—of Costa Rica's Mauricio Montero. Later in the locker room, Montero, head in hands, would recall his confrontation with Vanole. There were three penalty specialists on the Costa Rican side, he explained: whichever player felt most confident would take the free kick. Montero elected himself as the kicker. "I decided to go for el centro," he said. "The middle of the net."
Usually, the only chance a goalie has of stopping a penalty shot is to guess which way the ball is going to go and dive in that direction in anticipation. Vanole didn't do that. He stayed on his line, right in el centro.
"I watched Montero's feet, and I figured where he'd put it." he said after the game. "I knew I'd figured it right when the ball hit me in the chest." Vanole also handled the rebound, and that, for all practical purposes, was where the game ended, with two barely deserved World Cup points for the U.S. (A victory is worth two points in World Cup competition, a tie, one.)
The match, a sloppy exercise on both sides of the ball, was nearly overshadowed by the pregame celebrations of the Costa Rican fans. Perhaps a thousand of them showed up hours before the game and turned the St. Louis Soccer Park into a mundialito—a miniature World Cup—ablaze with banners and alive with firecrackers. Some who had arrived without tickets had tried without success to sneak onto the grounds of the stadium the night before, hoping to hide out until game time.
On Sunday the Costa Rican fans were surprised by their cozy surroundings. The St. Louis Soccer Park is small (8,500 capacity) and suburban, like the American game itself, and its down-home ambience was just the tonic needed by the U.S. World Cup team. Two weeks earlier, in the 30,000-seat Estadio Nacional in the Costa Rican capital of San Josè, the U.S. team had lost 1-0 to a country whose population is roughly the size of Iowa's. A second loss to Costa Rica would not have eliminated the U.S. from the World Cup quest, but it would have put their chances of moving up in peril. No team among the five in the confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean countries (CONCACAF)—the U.S., Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Trinidad and Tobago—had emerged as a clear favorite in the round-robin; soccer wisdom had it that, in order to become one of the two teams in the region to move on to the final rounds in Italy in 1990, a team had to win all four of its home games, and do no worse than split its four contests on the road.
"The lion was not as fierce as predicted," President Oscar Arias Sànchez of Costa Rica had said after his country's victory over the U.S., and in St. Louis the Yanks struggled to explain their lackluster performance in San Josè.
Before the rematch, U.S. coach Bob Gansler confessed to "a tentativeness" in the way his team had played, and described some of his players as having been "lackadaisical" in the earlier game. "We didn't even come close to getting our share of fifty-fifty balls," he said.
Others were more inclined to question the competence of Gansler, head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before being named, in January, to the most important job in U.S. soccer. Gansler, said his detractors, had prepared his team for its first World Cup game with all the subtlety of a man who had played 14 years as a central defender for the Milwaukee Bavarians; strategy and finesse, they said, were not the U.S. coach's strong suit.
Right through the arid first half of Sunday's match the Yanks played a game long on errors and short on inventiveness and imagination. Only a late offside call against the visitors after the ball was in the U.S. net prevented Costa Rica from taking a 1-0 lead at the nine-minute mark. The aggressive play of German Chavarria and Alvaro Solano belied the notion that the Costa Ricans would close up the game and go for a scoreless tie.
When a goal finally came, 27 minutes into the second half, it was the U.S., not Costa Rica, that scored it. Tab Ramos of Hillside, N.J., took a headed pass from Bruce Murray on his left and fired in a ground shot. "I got lucky," said Ramos later. "The ball was deflected by a defender." Costa Rica's Hector Marchena followed up with an apparent goal a few minutes later, but the play was nullified by the referee, who determined that Marchena had touched the ball with his hand.
And so the score stayed 1-0, thanks to Vanole's critical save. The round-robin has proceeded according to form: Every game so far has been won by the home team. Costa Rica is 2-2 for 4 points, Guatemala and the U.S. are both 1-1 for 2 points, while El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago have yet to play. Clearly what will count are points won away from home. "It is going to be very tight indeed," said Gansler, whose team next plays Trinidad and Tobago on May 13 in Torrance, Calif. On that point, he couldn't be faulted.