NEW YORK -- The United States will open 2010 World Cup qualifying in June against the tiny Caribbean nations of Barbados or Dominica and is likely to wind up in a politically charged semifinal group with Cuba.
"The opportunity to play in Cuba will be significant. I think the players will look forward to it," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said after American goalkeeper Kasey Keller set the matchup by plucking a blue ball from a bowl during Sunday's draw in Durban, South Africa.
Trying to make its sixth straight World Cup, the United States has a first-round bye. After advancing to the quarterfinals in 2002, the Americans were eliminated in the first round at last year's tournament in Germany.
The U.S. team is 5-1-1 against the Cubans, but has never played in Cuba. The teams have not met in a World Cup qualifier since 1949, when they played twice in Mexico City. Following a 1-1 tie against the Cubans, the Americans won the final match 5-2 and advanced to the 1950 tournament, where they upset England.
"There is no easy draw as players and teams continue to improve," Keller said.
The United States has maintained sanctions against Fidel Castro's government since 1962. Cuba has come to this country to play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, including earlier this year, but the teams have not met since the Americans beat Cuba 4-1 in the 2005 Gold Cup at Seattle.
While the U.S. team is ranked 19th in the world by FIFA, soccer's governing body, Cuba is 70th, Barbados is 124th and Dominica is 129th. The opener of the second-round series will be a U.S. home game.
"Certainly we know that Barbados would be the favorite to advance," Bradley said. "They are a team that typically is physically talented and are starting to have more players competing overseas."
The United States is 2-0 against Barbados, meeting twice in 2000 during the semifinals of qualifying. The Americans won 7-0 at Foxborough, Mass., then faced possible elimination when they went to Barbados for the semifinal finale. Clint Mathis score the first goal in the 63rd minute, and the U.S. team won 4-0.
The United States has never played Dominica.
Cuba, which made its only World Cup appearance in 1938, also has a first-round bye and must beat either Antigua and Barbuda, or Aruba to advance. The Americans' semifinal group is likely to also include Trinidad and Tobago (tied for 83rd), and Guatemala (104th). The U.S. team is 4-0-4 in qualifying against Guatemala and 8-0-2 against T&T.
The semifinals of the North and Central American and Caribbean region will be played from August to November, and the top two teams in each of the three groups advance to the regional finals in 2009. The top three teams in the finals qualify for the 32-nation field at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and the No. 4 team meets the fifth-place team from South America in a playoff for another berth.
Guatemala's second-round matchup will be against the winner of the Turks and Caicos Islands-St. Lucia series. T&T will face the winner of the Bermuda-Cayman Islands opening-round matchup.
Mexico heads Group Two and will play the winner of Belize vs. St. Kitts and Nevis in the second round. Also with byes in that group are Jamaica, Honduras, Canada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Group Three byes went to Costa Rica, Haiti, Panama and Guyana.