On Thursday evening, the U.S. national team arrived at the Hotel Melia Cohiba, two blocks from Havana's charming Malecón, the four-mile waterfront walkway. Before heading for the team dinner, coach Bob Bradley discussed the significance of Saturday's Cuba-U.S. game (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic and Galavision), which will most likely be one of the U.S.' 18 games in 2010 World Cup qualifying.
"We are honored to represent the United States in this historic occasion to come here and play Cuba," said Bradley. "It's exciting for all of our players. We have clearly a good idea of the importance of this match for both teams. I don't think there's extra pressure, but we do understand the fact that this game will bring extra attention. We really motivate ourselves at times knowing that more people than usual will follow the match, and that it's an opportunity always to show off our team, our character, our ability."
The U.S. started the semifinal road of qualifying with a 1-0 win at Guatemala, while Cuba fell, 3-1, at home against Trinidad & Tobago. Two straight home losses are sure to doom Cuba's hopes of reaching the World Cup for only the second time since 1938, when it became the first Caribbean team to reach the finals. Cuba's loss to the Trinidadians, Bradley believes, will give the Cubans extra incentive for a good performance.
"In all parts of the world, you see smaller countries rise to the occasion because of how much is at stake," Bradley said. "We also know that when you play a team that comes off a difficult game, you expect a strong response."
For their part, the Cubans are hoping for a record crowd at the 28,000-seat Estadio Pedro Marrero.
"The team needs the support of the public and it will be a important advantage for our players," said Cuba's German coach, Reinhold Fanz, on Wednesday.
For sure, the team that struggled against Trinidad & Tobago will need all the help it can get.
"To win against the USA will be difficult but not impossible," Fanz said. "The players know they have to take charge of the game. We made some modifications and have strengthened our midfield. We will not play with fear. We'll take an attacking posture, with order."
For the U.S. -- whose next game is against the Trinidadians in Illinois on Wednesday -- starting with two road wins would put it in a fine position to cruise into the final round. The top two finishers of the semifinal phase advance to the six-team, home-and-home final round. The top three finishers in the final-round group qualify for South Africa 2010 and the fourth-place finisher plays off with South America's No. 5 team for what could be CONCACAF's fourth spot.
For a team that brings in more than half its roster from Europe, clinching a final-round spot early on could prove beneficial. It would allow foreign-based players to stay with their clubs -- increasing their chances to keep or win starting jobs -- while giving Bradley the opportunity to test new players.
"That could be something that works in your favor, but coaches tend not to think ahead that way," said Bradley. "Should you get to that point, the possibility to get different players experience is something we've worked hard to do in the last year-and-a-half."
But for now the focus is on Cuba.
"We know that this game will get extra attention," said Bradley, "and it's always exciting to play in that type of situation."
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