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By ESPN Staff

Cuban team start with 10 men after defections

ORLANDO, Florida, March 13 (Reuters) - Cuba's Olympic soccer team took to the field with only 10 men on Thursday after up to seven of their players defected.

Five members of the communist state's under-23 team defected after their Olympic qualifying game against the United States, a 1-1 draw, in Tampa on Tuesday.

A further two players, both reported to have defected, were absent from the line-up against Honduras on Thursday.

With one player already suspended following a red card, Cuba coach Raul Gonzalez had only ten players available to him and his team began the match with a one-man disadvantage and no substitutes.

The five players who defected after Tuesday's game were captain Yenier Bermudez, goalkeeper Jose Manuel Miranda, defenders Erlys Garcia Baro and Loanni Prieto and midfielder Yordany Alvarez.

Media reports on Thursday said that defender Yendry Diaz and midfielder Eder Roldan had defected on Wednesday and neither of those players were present at Thursday's game.

The Cuban Football Association in Havana slammed the players as cowards.

'This was a very irresponsible act of cowardice by these five players,' Antonio Garces, a Cuban Football Association official, told Reuters in Havana.

'They have betrayed their homeland,' the official said.

The Cuban team is part of an eight-nation tournament in the U.S to determine which two teams will represent North and Central America and the Caribbean in the Beijing Olympics soccer tournament.

The regional soccer governing body CONCACAF, which organises the tournament, said in a statement that the Cuban team would continue to take part despite the absences.

'CONCACAF's sole objective is to ensure the 2008 CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament is carried out in the proper manner,' a statement said.

'The Cuban Delegation has informed us that they will continue to participate in the tournament. All matches, therefore remain as scheduled.'

The defecting players had initially been offered a trial by second-tier professional team Miami FC but the United Soccer Leagues club later backed away from that position after contact with CONCACAF.

'The official position of Miami FC is that it is not right for any athlete, in any sport, to abandon a competition in the middle of it,' said club spokesman Marcos Ommati.

'Our first intention was to help but we had to think it through,' Ommati said, adding that the players might be offered a chance with the club after they resolved their legal status in the U.S.

Miami has a large Cuban exile community and the addition of Cuban players would have been a boost to the profile of the club.

Cuba, aiming for their first appearance in the Olympic soccer competition since the 1980 Moscow Games, will also face Panama in Group A on Saturday.