"What the photography showed was that two new barracks, administrative buildings and recreation facilities had quickly risen on the island, including a soccer field. In my eyes this stamped it indelibly as a Russian base, since as an old soccer fan I knew Cubans rarely played soccer."
—HENRY KISSINGER, former secretary of state, on U.S. spy photographs revealing a Russian military base in Cuba, TIME magazine, Oct. 1, 1979
If an old U2 spy plane had been flying over Havana last Saturday, it would have captured an arresting sight: not just any soccer field, but a soccer field at Pedro Marrero Stadium, where the Cuban national team was meeting, of all foes, the United States of America. The occasion was historic, the first World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Cuba on Cuban soil—and the first time the U.S. senior team had played in Havana since the prerevolution days of 1947. Cuba won that friendly but is 0-5-1 against the U.S. since. After the Americans won an unexpectedly close match 1–0, it was clear that Cubans can play soccer after all.
"They actually played well," said U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "They were a better team than I think I thought they were."
September 14, 2008
With U.S. citizens barred since 1963 from unlicensed travel to the island nation, the game gave the American players (if not their fans) a rare chance to experience the two Cubas. That meant one day riding a bus past giant propaganda billboards—one featured President George W. Bush next to Adolf Hitler—and the next riding motorized rickshaws to a flea market where ordinary citizens welcomed them with open arms.
"It was really special for a lot of us just to see the everyday culture," says defender Heath Pearce, who joined teammates Carlos Bocanegra, Danny Califf, Steve Cherundolo and Tim Howard on the jaunt. "A lot of us know about the history, and to actually get to see the daily life here was a unique thing. And they have some beautiful art here."
Works of art would be the last phrase used to describe the U.S.'s first two games in the semifinal round of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Granted, 1–0 victories at Guatemala on Aug. 20 and at Cuba put the U.S. atop its four-team group heading into Wednesday's game against Trinidad and Tobago in Bridgeview, Ill., but the Americans have yet to show the sort of flair that could win new fans in the States. The lone score in Havana was midfielder Clint Dempsey's opportunistic goal in the 40th minute after a Cuban defender had misplayed a clearance in the penalty box.
"There wasn't much soccer played either game," admitted Bocanegra, whose near own-goal in the final minutes was saved by Howard's diving stop. "But it's two wins for us, and it doesn't get any better than that."
That's true, and there's no denying that the U.S. is now winning most of the road World Cup qualifiers in its region that it would often tie or lose 10 years ago. But if the U.S. continues to struggle offensively, the calls to bring promising young attackers into future camps will only grow louder: Forwards Kenny Cooper, 23, and Jozy Altidore, 18, and 19-year-old midfielder Freddy Adu weren't even named to the roster for this week's two Cup qualifiers. Even against a low-level team of amateur players like Cuba, coach Bob Bradley wasn't eager to insert an attacking midfielder for one of his two holding central mids, his son Michael and Maurice Edu.
"I don't consider that they're both holding midfielders," Bradley said on Saturday. "We encourage the idea that one can move out and join in [the offense]."
It's unlikely that Kissinger the soccer fan would hail the U.S.'s attack these days as an aggressive display of power. But in other areas, as the Yanks learned in Havana, soft power isn't a bad way to go. When the U.S. players saluted the rain-soaked crowd of 8,000 after the final whistle, thousands of Cuban fans cheered for Tío Sam.