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Pivot Man for US Soccer

If the American team does well, so does the sport - and so does Coach Milutinovic

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FIVE days before the United States plays its opening match in the 1994 World Cup, reporters jam the video room at the US National Team Training Center in Mission Viejo, Calif. The focus of their attention is head coach Bora Milutinovic.

A TV reporter, eager for a shred of insight about the enigmatic coach, thrusts a microphone at him and blurts, ``Bora, who are you?''

The baffled coach produces nothing poetic for the news at seven. But Milutinovic (pronounced MEEL-oo-teen-oh-vich) - relaxed, smiling, and dripping with sweat after a team practice and an impromptu goal-kicking session with pro-basketball star Vlade Divac - might well have said: ``I am a happy boy playing soccer in the streets.'' He has traveled far from his Yugoslavian village and accomplished much, but he has never lost the joy of playing soccer.

Three years ago, US soccer federation officials searched the world for a coach who could build a team worthy of the 1994 World Cup's host country.

This coach had to be extraordinary, someone who could forge a tough team of American players without the crucible of a competitive professional league. He must accomplish the task in the belly of a culture that lacks passion for 0-to-0 scores and refuses to embrace the concept of no helmets, no hands, and no timeouts for commercials.

``The only man who can do it is Bora Milutinovic,'' advised legendary German coach Franz Beckenbauer, adding his recommendation to a growing pile of unanimous praise.

Milutinovic, Serbian by birth, Mexican by choice, and citizen of the world by temperament, had earned the title of ``miracle worker'' by coaching two nations past expectations in two World Cups - Mexico to a sixth-place finish on home ground in 1986 and tiny Costa Rica to the second round at Italy in 1990. That's what the US needed - a man who could turn derision into respect.

Milutinovic accepted the challenge. He calls himself ``a soldier of the federation.''

US Soccer President Alan Rothenberg and Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher call Milutinovic a genius. They also refer to him as a teacher, a schemer, a master motivator, colorful and charismatic. Above all, they call him a superior human being. But if the US team fails to emerge from the scramble of the 24-team first round, the miracle man could be chopped liver.

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