Monday September 1st, 2008

It was pushing midnight on Saturday when U.S. forward Landon Donovan and I arrived at Cuban Revolution, a kitschy hipster hangout in downtown Providence, R.I., with huge pop-art murals on the walls -- Castro, JFK, Che -- and the lefty singer Manu Chao blasting on the stereo.

There aren't many late-night dining options in Providence, but this was one of them, and the setting seemed appropriate given the fascinating trip that lies ahead this week for the U.S. national team: its first-ever visit to Cuba for a World Cup qualifying match.

Donovan had just scored two goals in a 2-2 tie against New England to push his MLS-leading total to 16 on the season. But now, over plates of steak chimichurri, sautéed garlic shrimp and Cuban maduros, the discussion turned to our curiosity about what we'll encounter when we land in Havana this week.

"It's awesome," Donovan said of the trip. "I don't know the full implications of what it means to be in Cuba, what it means to play in Cuba, and I think I underestimate maybe how strange it's going to be to be there. The more I talk to people, the more I hear stuff like we can't use credit cards there, we can't use American cash. It's like, 'Where the hell are we going? Mars?'"

Mexican journos may have dubbed the 2001 U.S.-Mexico classic La Guerra Fría. But that was a soccer game played in cold weather. U.S.-Cuba, by contrast, stokes the dying embers of the real Cold War.

"I haven't been to a Communist country," Donovan said. "I was at the South Korea-North Korea border, the Demilitarized Zone [in 2002]. It sounds stupid, but it'll be interesting just to see if they have the Internet or newspapers to the outside world. I've also heard that it's beautiful there. We probably won't get to leave the hotel much, but it would be cool to at least look around a bit."

The U.S. has met Cuba only once in Cuba: a 5-2 U.S. loss in a friendly in Havana on July 20, 1947, 12 years before Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution. The teams have faced each other six times since then (with five U.S. wins and a tie), but the long-awaited return to Havana will be different from typical World Cup qualifiers in several ways.

For starters, while U.S. journalists have been able to obtain visas to cover the game on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic), fans from the U.S. will not be allowed to enter Cuba for the event. (Not legally, at least, per U.S. government laws. I'll be on the lookout for anyone who manages to get in through the back-door. If you'll be there, send me an e-mail at I'd love to hear your story, and I'll be blogging from Havana all week.)

In any case, it's a shame that more U.S. fans won't be on hand, because they'd likely receive a positive welcome from ordinary Cuban fans. Doug Logan, the former MLS commissioner and current head of USA Track & Field, is half-Cuban, and he thinks the reception for the U.S. players will be far more welcoming than the one they get for World Cup qualifiers in Mexico or Costa Rica.

"I'm a veteran of San Jose [for qualifiers in Costa Rica], where players have gotten spit on, and none of that will occur in Havana," Logan says. "The people who show up will be respectful."

Donovan seems aware of that too. "They've always been nice and respectful when we've played them," he said. "I don't expect there to be an issue."

The only real source of tension is the unhappiness of Cuban officials over the spate of defections in recent years by Cuban soccer players. No fewer than 10 have defected to the U.S. in the past three years, including Chivas USA forward Maykel Galindo and seven players from the Cuban team that tied the U.S. 1-1 at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa last March.

Donovan made sure to speak with three of the Tampa defectors when they tried out unsuccessfully with the Los Angeles Galaxy earlier this year. "They were very nice, very polite," Donovan said. "You could tell they were a little starstruck, but they were decent soccer players.

"The world they lived in is so different from anything we can imagine. Obviously they must have some greater sense [of the world] than what they were brainwashed with their whole childhood to have the courage to leave. So I have respect for them. The sad thing is a lot of them leave their families and they're just gone. Can you imagine leaving everything you know?"

From a pure soccer perspective, Donovan hopes the U.S. can build on its 1-0 win at Guatemala that began the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. That game was hardly a cakewalk, and defender Steve Cherundolo will be suspended against Cuba after drawing two silly yellow cards against Guatemala.

"We still have to learn how to play in these games," Donovan said. "You could tell we were naïve against Guatemala because we had a lot of young players on the field. The good thing is we got that experience and we won. Even with Steve, someone who's as experienced as anyone out there, you can still make two dumb plays and the refs are waiting to throw you out. So we've got to get better at that."

Now that he has more than 100 caps and the U.S. has become a dominant force in CONCACAF, Donovan says that the Americans should expect to win (and not just tie) their road games in World Cup qualifying, especially against smaller countries like Cuba.

"But then you get in the game and it's not easy," he said. "If we were playing on a normal soccer field that would make a big difference. All the other stuff honestly isn't a factor anymore: the crowd, the weather, the travel. We travel well, we stay in good places, the food is fine. But more often than not you get there and the field's just in bad shape and you can't play. So all the advantages we have talent-wise are gone immediately. It makes the game very difficult.

"If we had a proper field [in Guatemala] I think we could have won that game a little more comfortably. But do I expect us to win [in Cuba]? Yeah, we should beat Cuba in Cuba. If Trinidad beats Cuba in Cuba, we should win."

Of course, there's another shared experience uniting Americans and Cubans this week, and it's far more important than a soccer game. Hurricane Gustav roared through western Cuba and caused extensive damage over the weekend, just as it's now doing in the United States.

Donovan, for his part, is considering a symbolic show of support after the game on Saturday. "Maybe we'll band with the Cuban players after the game and show some solidarity," he said, raising his fist at the table in the back corner of a restaurant called Cuban Revolution. "That would be interesting, wouldn't it?"

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