Tab Ramos loved playing against Costa Rica. (FrontRowSoccer Photo)

Reposted with permission

By Michael Lewis

Soccer New York Editor

PORTLAND, Ore. — With one flick of his right foot, U.S. national team midfielder Tab Ramos ended eight months of frustration in spectacular fashion.

Ramos, who had been sidelined eight months due to an ACL injury, scored with 12 minutes remaining to keep the U.S. alive and kicking in its bid to reach the World Cup with a dramatic 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in a key qualifier on Sept. 7 (1997).

“I’ve never been happier than today,” said Ramos, playing only in his second international match since injuring his knee in a 1-0 qualifying win over Trinidad & Tobago last Nov. 24. “I’ve had so many frustrations the last six-eight months. When the ball hit the back of the net, the feeling I had was that I was back. Today was the most special goal I’ve ever scored.”

The goal certainly saved the U.S. (2-1-3, 9 points) of falling into fourth place in a game that was a turning point qualifier for France 98 and propelled the U.S. into second place in the CONCACAF region ahead of Costa Rica (2-3-2, 8) in the race for three World Cup berths.

Instead, the Ticos dropped into a third-place tie with Jamaica (2-2-2, 8), a 1-0 winner over visiting Canada. Mexico (3-0-2, 11) is in first place, with El Salvador (1-2-3, 6) and Canada (1-3-2, 5) bringing up the rear.

“I’m definitely euphoric right now,” U.S. coach Steve Sampson said. “I’m trying to control my emotions because I want to be humble in victory. It’s difficult right now.

“We’re on our way [to France].”

Well, the Americans definitely took a step closer. Next on tap is a qualifier against Jamaica in RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 3.

A victory there — a win is worth three points — could bring the U.S. on the verge of clinching a spot.

Ramos, who turns 31 on Sept. 21, certainly made the road to France a lot easier as he capped his comeback. He went through an eight-month recovery period before returning to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in July.

In his national team comeback during a 1-0 loss to Ecuador last month, Ramos proved he was ready for the rigors of international soccer with an MVP performance.

“A month ago I was ready for the MLS,” he said. “It’s very hard to get up to this level.”

Added Sampson: He’s a very creative player. You can see how comfortable he is on the ball. He has great vision and great ability.”

They won’t build Ramos too many statues in San Jose, Costa Rica. In a qualifier eight years ago, Ramos scored the lone goal, from atop the penalty area, in a 1-0 U.S. win over the Central Americans. Incredibly. the Sept. 7 goal was scored from virtually the same spot.

Not much of a goal-scorer (six goals in 76 appearances), Ramos has forged his reputation as being the U.S.’s most creative player.

“I get about a goal a year,” he said with a smile.

Ramos, however, was far from pleased with his performance in the opening half that Sunday.

“I didn’t want to take too many chances,” he said. “That’s why I hesitated. I told Mike Sorber [his MetroStars and national team teammate]: ‘I’m going to take some changes and making something happen.’ ”

He did, although it took some time for his efforts to come to fruition.

Preki, who entered the game for Roy Wegerle only five minutes prior, dribbled into the right-wing corner, got free with a cutback dribble and crossed the ball into the area. Defender Marcelo Balboa settled the ball and passed back to Ramos at the top of the penalty arc. Ramos fired a 20-yard blast past goalkeeper Erick Lonnis into the lower right corner to send the sellout crowd at Civic Stadium into a frenzy.

“We knew there wasn’t much time left,” Ramos said. “It hit it as hard as I could.”

While the Americans tried to push forward, they experienced major problems finishing and for good reason. They played without striker Eric Wynalda, the country’s all-time international scoring leader (30 goals), who pulled out of the match only 10 minutes before the kickoff after he aggravated his calf muscle during warm-ups.

“You must give Eric credit,” Sampson said. “He came up to me and said, ‘I can’t do this to the team. I can’t fool you.’ ”

So he sat, which limited Sampson’s dwindling options even more.

With Brian McBride and Joe-Max Moore also ailing, Sampson settled on Wegerle, who hadn’t played for the U.S. in nearly two years, and Roy Lassiter, who has been more effective as a second-half super sub.

To put it nicely, they were ineffective. Except for a weak shot on goal, Wegerle had a silent game. Lassiter, who scored twice against Costa Rica in the past year, could not get his act together. His timing was off; he passed the ball when he shot and vice versa.

Sampson, though, had to be encouraged by a solid performance from his defense. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller was never severely tested as Thomas Dooley, a surprise starter over Alex Lalas played sweeper while Balboa moved to stopped, making Hernan Medford out of the match.

“Costa Rica did not really have any quality scoring opportunities,” Sampson said. “I really applaud our defense. They did an outstanding job.”

Costa Rica has its work cut out for itself as the Central Americans, led by controversial and outspoken coach Juan Luis Hernandez, got little time to prepare for their next challenge. They meet Jamaica in another important match in Kingston, Jamaica Sept. 14.