Mark Lugris celebrates scoring the very first goal of the 1994 World Cup qualifying tournament. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Captain and defender Mark Lugris showed his true colors.
Minutes after Puerto Rico defeated the Dominican Republic in the first qualifying game of the 1994 World Cup on March 21, 1992, the Bronx native was draped in the blue-white-and-red flag of Puerto Rico.
Lugris is an American by birth and a Puerto Rican by heritage (his mother).
Asked if a person can have two homes, Lugris replied, “He can have one in his heart and where he lives.”
His home is New York City, his heart is with Puerto Rico, for whom he scored the first goal in a 2-1 victory in the Caribbean North zone preliminary series.
The match kicked off the 20-month long qualifying process that will take 582 games to whittle down 138 countries to 22 finalists (the host U.S. and defending champion Germany automatically qualified).
The win was significant for several reasons:
* It gave Puerto Rico a solid lead entering its March 29 second-leg match in San Juan.
* It was Puerto Rico’s first-ever qualifying victory after six losing attempts.
* And it marked the debut of several Eastern New York and area players in the World Cup competition.
“This is all the world to us,” said Lugris, a Fordham University graduate who was one of nine metropolitan area players who started for Puerto Rico. “All the controversy we’ve gone through. It will shut a lot of mouths back home.”
Lugris was referring to the turmoil that had set the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee against its own national soccer team and had the Dominican Republic protesting the match, claiming the metro players were ineligible.
Puerto Rico has 14 mainland Americans on its roster, mostly from amateur and semi-professional teams in the New York area, nine who have no connection with Puerto by heritage or residency.
Puerto Rico was forced to use New Yorkers after the team boycotted training to protest the firing of coach Victor Hugo Barros in December. Roberto Monroig, president of the Puerto Rican Soccer Federation, asked Arnie Ramirez, the coach of the Long Island University soccer team, for some help, and he came through with 14 players.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory.
“Of course, we will protest,” Dominican Republic head coach Benhard Zgoll said. “The United States has a team in the World Cup. A country cannot participate with two teams in the World Cup.”
The Puerto Rican Soccer Federation, whose rules are backed by FIFA, says that a player needs only a U.S. passport to be eligible to play for Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
So, the Puerto Rican lineup included Chico Mieles, defender Milton Espinoza and Lugris of the N.Y. Hota/Bavarians (Northeastern Super Soccer League), defender Martin Alvarez (LIU graduate), defender George Nazario (Seton Hall University), midfielders Stan Koziol of the New Jersey Arrows (NESSL), Franco Paonessa of Greek-American Atlas (Atlantic Professional Soccer Conference) and Ramiro Borja of the Pancyprians (APSC) and Robert Milner (King’s College).
Despite using an ultra-conservative 5-4-1 formation (Ramirez said he used it while his LIU team won its final six matches last season), Puerto Rico dominated the first half against the Dominicans, whose inexperienced lineup included a 16-year-old forward Omar Cuevas and an average age of 19.
The Puerto Ricans, led by by Koziol, Borja and Paonessa, had little trouble retaining possession in the hosts’ end early on, continually intercepting clearances and pushing the ball forward to steady goalkeeper Rafael Caminero. Their finishing touch, however, was virtually non-existent.
They finally found their mark in the 23rd minute as Lugris, a New York City restaurant manager, fired a 15-yard shot from the left side that bounded off the far post and into the net. The visitors added a second score in the 57th when Borja, the younger brother of former Cosmos forward Chico Borja, put home a low, 22-yard shot from the right side.
Ironically, it was the supposed hardened Puerto Rican side that cracked in the final 30 minutes, especially after it allowed a gift goal in the 68th minute after a long punt by Caminero that was misplayed by the defense. Dinardo Rodriguez ran onto the ball and headed it home.
“We lost our composure in the end,” Lugris said. “It was a bad goal.”
And a whale of a finish as Mieles was forced to make saves from point-blank range to preserve the victory. The winner meets Jamaica in the next round, in either April or May.
After referee Lancelotte Livingston of Jamaica blew the final whistle, many of the 5,000 spectators spilled onto the field and talked with the players (there were no incidents).
In fact, the match was a rather informal affair. Estadio Olimpico, an 18-year-old structure that certainly had seen better days, hardly was the ideal site for the opening of a tournament that was expected to boost the sport in the U.S.
The parched field was hard and uneven.
The scoreboard, which looked like it caught fire at least once, did not work. Neither did phones in the adjacent soccer federation headquarters. There were no press credentials as the media was allowed to mill around the benches. Imagine that happening at a U.S. or European qualifier.
Then there were no locker room facilities or lack thereof. Ramirez moved the Puerto Rican squad from its original locker room because of the stench of backed-up toilets to a delivery area that had bars protecting it from the outside world, underneath the stands that had benches and tables.
The team quietly prepared while a worker occasionally delivered bananas to a storage room.
So, instead of using a blackboard to diagram last-minute strategy and assignments, Ramirez used water bottles, plastic cups and oranges to get his point across.
The message got through to his troops.