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Sep 4, 2008

Cuba cautiously optimistic for U.S. game

HAVANA -- Cuban national team coach Reinhold Fanz is convinced that if a bounce or two goes his team's way, it can defeat the heavily favored United States when the political adversaries meet in a historic World Cup qualifying match here Saturday night. "You need a little bit of luck," Fanz said after the Cuban squad practiced at Estadio Pedro Marrero on Wednesday night. "We had no luck against Trinidad." The Leones del Caribe fell 3-1 to Trinidad and Tobago on Aug. 20 despite out-shooting their opponents 18-5, and they didn't manage to get on the score sheet until the 88th minute, when the result was already decided. A second consecutive home loss would all but end Cuba's chances of advancing to next year's final round. "We need to fight for three points," said veteran defender Silvio Minoso. "If we can't get three, then at least one. It's important to get points because we lost the first game." Minoso said communication breakdowns in the back, as well as the fact that several Cuban players were making their very first appearance for the national team, cost them against T&T. "We have been working to correct the key mistakes we made," he said. "The team is more focused and relaxed now and we hope it will show on [Saturday]."

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Cuba
Sept. 6
Havana, Cuba
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic
ESPN360.com

U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Sept. 10
Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
ESPN360.com

The Cuban players are also hoping to get a lift from their fans. While only about 4,000 turned out for last month's match, Cuban officials expect that with the U.S. serving as the opponent, the 18,000-capacity venue will be completely filled. Admission to the game is free. But while he acknowledged the added interest surrounding the tilt, the coach was quick to downplay the political significance of the encounter. "Yes, it's important for the country," Fanz said. "But it's more important that we get three points. We have five games left and we need nine or ten points if we want to go to the next round." Fanz has only been in charge of the Cuban squad since January, but the former Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover 96 boss has already faced many of the unique challenges that come with coaching Cuba. In March, seven members of the country's under-23 team defected in Tampa during CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament, although according to Fanz, "Not the good players. The good players came back." The Cubans also had a tough time adjusting to the style of play Fanz brought with him from his native Germany when he took over. "At first, we were a little worried because the European philosophy is different," Minoso said. "But now we are more used to it and there is very good communication between the players and the technical staff." Finally, Fanz is forced to field a lineup comprised entirely of players from Cuba's domestic league, which is a major handicap in international play. "It's very difficult," he admitted. "But the good thing is we can work with the players every day for many months, like a club team. The bad thing is we don't have much international experience." Still, despite the odds stacked against his side, Fanz remains cautiously optimistic about his team's chances this weekend. "The team from the U.S.A. is physically and tactically strong," he said. "But I think my boys know what they have to do. If we don't make mental mistakes, we have a chance." Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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