In Historic Visit, U.S. One-ups Cuba

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008

HAVANA, Sept. 6 -- As far as the U.S. soccer players were concerned, Saturday night's match against Cuba was not about politics or visiting this restricted island for the first time in 61 years. It was about subduing an ambitious opponent playing in front of a passionate but friendly audience, and taking a step closer to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

There was no avoiding the historical backdrop, but once the match commenced in rainy conditions at Pedro Marrero Stadium and Clint Dempsey broke a scoreless tie late in the first half, all the secondary storylines faded.

Dempsey's 40th-minute goal and goalkeeper Tim Howard's sensational save in the final moments were the difference in the 1-0 victory as the United States won its second consecutive road game in the semifinal stage of regional qualifying and moved into first place in the four-team group. The Americans (2-0) will play Trinidad and Tobago (1-0-1) on Wednesday in Bridgeview, Ill., before hosting the Cubans (0-2) on Oct. 11 at RFK Stadium.

The top two finishers will advance to next year's final round.

"Exactly where we wanted to be," forward Brian Ching said. "Two tough road games and hopefully we can build on that, get another three points at home and see this round out."

Mostly sunny skies turned ominous 2 1/2 hours before kickoff and heavy rain and a persistent wind made a mess of the dreary complex. Havana had enjoyed pleasant weather since the edge of Hurricane Gustav passed through western Cuba last week, a reprieve before the possible arrival of Hurricane Ike.

Though much of the main concrete grandstands sits under a roof, holes of all shapes and sizes allowed rain to flow unimpeded. Early arriving fans bunched together in the protected, but wind-whipped and mist-sprayed, sections. The southside stands, however, lacked roofing and were kept empty except for broadcast personnel.

For a country that does not embrace this sport the way it does baseball, the fans displayed a colorful range of soccer allegiances with their clothing and hats: El Salvador and Guatemala, Inter Milan and AC Milan, Costa Rica and Honduras, Chelsea and Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Brazil and Argentina. For good measure, there was even a Michael Jordan jersey, a New York Yankees cap and a Derek Jeter T-shirt.

One Cuban donned a U.S. World Cup 2006 shirt and red-white-and-blue bandanna and wrapped himself in an American flag. Several American fans entered the country without permission from the U.S. government, using a third country as a travel hub. As long as their passports do not get stamped in Cuba -- Cuban immigration will grant such requests -- their previous whereabouts will not be detected by U.S. customs. To remain anonymous, they arrived at the stadium in olive military caps, sunglasses and U.S. bandanas covering their faces.

Yuri Zambrano, a 30-year-old Cuban who lives a couple of blocks from the stadium, said he was rooting for his country but was happy to see the U.S. team. "There is a rivalry between the governments," he explained in a combination of English and Spanish. "In spite of the fact that there are problems, there must be a friendly relationship in sport."

The rain eased for a while, then returned before kickoff. There was a new problem, as well: The lights had gone out, plunging team warmups into shadows. It was restored in time for an on-time start.

Energized by the crowd, Cuba seized the initiative and created an excellent opportunity in the third minute when Carlos Francisco volleyed Jaime Colome's corner kick off target from deep inside the penalty area.

The match began to tighten and the Americans found it increasingly difficult to find space within 35 yards of the net. Oguchi Onyewu provided a physical presence on the U.S. backline, interrupting repeated Cuban forays.

Onyewu then contributed to the goal, delivering a long ball from midfield toward Dempsey. A Cuban player headed the ball off Dempsey's back to Ching, who warded off a defender and set up Dempsey for a 12-yarder into the left corner for his 12th goal in 44 national team appearances.

"I just tried to get a good first touch to open myself up to the goal and just hit it hard and low to the near post," Dempsey said. "That's a difficult one for the keeper to save."

The operator of the manual scoreboard changed the "0" to a "1" under the "USA" sign.

Cuba gained inspiration from the introduction of Alain Cervantes at the start of the second half and nearly drew even on a shot from distance that floated over the crossbar as Howard retreated. The Americans should have doubled the lead in the 61st minute. Landon Donovan's pass led DaMarcus Beasley into the penalty area. Goalkeeper Odelin Molina reached the ball first, but failed to control it near the end line. Beasley cleverly improved his shooting angle, but missed badly.

Cuba, desperate for a point in the standings to maintain realistic hopes of advancing, pressed for the equalizer, but the Americans kept their composure defensively and slowed the pace. Though 10 minutes still remained, hundreds of quiet spectators streamed toward the exits.

In the 85th minute, many of the lights flickered off, but Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar allowed play to continue. Howard then made his clutch save, diving to his right on a ball that deflected off teammate Carlos Bocanegra's shin.

"It just skipped up on me," Bocanegra said. "It was unbelievable athleticism [by Howard] to get back to it."

Said Howard: "It was getting ready to head into the bottom corner. I think we got away with it."

There were no further scares and the Americans earned a third straight victory in a road qualifier for the first time in program history. They also celebrated a win in Havana after a 61-year wait.

"Since the day we got here, everyone has been great," Donovan said. "It wasn't bad in any way. Everyone was nice to us and respectful. It wasn't a nasty game. It was just a hard-fought, good game."

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