MIAMI, FEB. 2 -- Bora Milutinovic of Yugoslavia, who reportedly did a remarkable job in getting the Mexican and Costa Rican teams ready for the past two World Cups, has emerged as the leading candidate to replace Bob Gansler as coach of the U.S. national soccer team, the Chicago Tribune reported today.

Even if Milutinovic is hired soon, however, Gansler may coach the team until his contract expires at the end of the year. While U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg declined comment about Milutinovic, he did say an observation period might be necessary for any foreign coach coming to the United States.

"We might sign a coach and let him travel around the country to see how our system works," Rothenberg said.

Milutinovic's relations with Latin players -- and fluency in Spanish -- are considered a big plus by the new USSF leaders, who are trying to lure national team players from the vast pool of Latin leagues around the country.

Milutinovic took over the Mexican team in 1983, after it had failed to qualify for a World Cup for only the second time since World War II. In the 1986 Cup, played in Mexico, his squad delighted its country by winning its first-round group, beating Bulgaria in the second round and losing to eventual runner-up West Germany on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.

Milutinovic took over a struggling Costa Rican team less than three months before the 1990 Cup, in which it was the smallest country of the 24 finalists. He immediately dumped four national team starters, including a popular forward, and stressed defense.

Meanwhile, for U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola, just participating in Friday night's 1-0 loss to Switzerland was more important than the final score.

It was the first competitive match in nearly two months for Meola, who allowed a last-minute goal.

The goalie, who dropped out of the University of Virginia to play professional soccer, was released by Watford of the English Second Division in December after failing to become a regular. He then failed to hook on with a French club.

"I got depressed after that," Meola said. "But I had to pull myself through it. I'm only 21 and I know I can still play."

Meola's last game before Friday was the Americans' 1-0 loss to Portugal Dec. 19.

"Things weren't working out in Europe and his game wasn't sharp," Gansler said. "But he sorted things out and played well in the Portugal game. Now he's a psychologically strong person."

Meola came home and began a rigorous workout program at a Syosset, N.Y., tennis club. Among the graduates of the program, designed to improve quickness, are Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova, Andre Agassi and Howard Johnson.

"In just two weeks, it's improved my quickness," Meola said.

He was perfect Friday until Adrian Knup scored off Herbert Baumann's corner kick in the final minute.

"Their coach told me after the game: 'We just got lucky out there. It's a tie game," Gansler said. "It's what you call a career shot, hitting a full volley."

Meola isn't scheduled to play Sunday against Bayern Munich in the U.S. team's second game of the Miami Cup. He is is hoping the U.S. Soccer Federation loans him either to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers or Tampa Bay Rowdies of the American Professional Soccer League.

Former Duke goalie Mark Dodd is scheduled to play against Bayern Munich, which played Colombia to a scoreless tie Friday night.