HAVANA -- Those who expected the U.S. to come into this much-anticipated World Cup qualifier and blow out Cuba by three or four goals were bound to be disappointed with the 1-0 result the Americans posted Saturday night.
But although the visitors' superior pedigree wasn't necessarily reflected in the score line, coach Bob Bradley's squad did what quality teams all around the world must do when they meet one of the minnows: It did just enough to win.
If it wasn't an overly impressive performance from the Yanks, it was a thoroughly professional and effective one. Most importantly, it gave the U.S. its second straight road win to open the tricky semifinal stage of CONCACAF qualifying.
"We're exactly where we wanted to be," said forward Brian Ching, who expertly held off a defender to set up Clint Dempsey's winner five minutes before halftime.
"Hopefully we can build on that, get another three points at home and kind of see this round out."
After beating Guatemala on Aug. 20 and winning here, the U.S. team heads stateside to face Trinidad and Tobago in suburban Chicago on Wednesday night. If the Americans can secure another victory there as expected, that win would all but assure them a place in next year's hexagonal tournament that determines the region's three automatic reps at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The outcome could have been different against Cuba had one late play gone the hosts' way. In the 86th minute, U.S. team member Carlos Bocanegra nearly put the ball into his own goal after his clearance attempt skipped awkwardly off his right shin. With the ball heading toward the bottom right corner of the net, keeper Tim Howard leaped to paw it away just before it crossed the line.
"That was just unbelievable athleticism to get back to it," Bocanegra said of Howard's save.
A spent Cuban side certainly didn't look willing or able to conjure an equalizer on its own during the final 20 minutes of the match. Even the good-natured Cuban supporters didn't have much faith in their team by then. Scores of fans began streaming toward the exits with about 13 minutes to play.
"At that point, they were content to sit back and almost say, it's better losing 1-0 than 3-0," U.S. forward Landon Donovan said. "If they had come [forward], we could have opened them up and it would have been a different game."
|Group 1 standings|
Either way, it still goes down as a vitally important win.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest):
GK, Tim Howard, 8 -- Saved the points for his team with a brilliant one-handed reaction stop on a ball that had deflected off Bocanegra. Was in total command of his area throughout and was quick to chastise his mates whenever they were careless defensively.
D, Heath Pearce, 6 -- Pretty much error-free in a solid defensive display, but didn't contribute much during his many forays way up the left side of the field.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- Kept the back four organized and comfortably dealt with whatever the Cuban attackers threw at him. Continues to grow into his role as the full-time captain. His only negative was the botched clearance, but Howard bailed him out.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Had some issues with the bumpy turf, particularly one first-half turnover that luckily amounted to nothing. Strong in the air and started the play that led to the goal.
D, Frankie Hejduk, 5 -- Got beat on two occasions in the second half, one that led to Cuba's best chance of the night from the run of play. Otherwise, competently filled in for suspended Steve Cherundolo.
M, Maurice Edu, 5 -- Showed his inexperience at times and almost committed a potentially costly giveaway in the first half. The good thing is, he has the athleticism and the savvy to recover most of the time.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- Another case of not noticing the deep-lying midfielder much, but for a holding role, that's generally a very good thing. Still, I can't shake the feeling that it would be nice to see him contribute more to the attack, especially against a relatively weak foe like Cuba.
M, DaMarcus Beasley, 5 -- Seemed off his game all evening. His touch let him down on a number of occasions, particularly when he had chances to make things happen offensively. His composure did help the Americans keep the ball when Cuba began to get desperate, but all in all, Saturday was a performance he'll want to forget.
M, Clint Dempsey, 6 -- Took his goal well and was often physically involved in battles, but he's still finding his fitness, form and confidence after losing his starting role with English club Fulham.
F, Landon Donovan, 6 -- Granted, he didn't impose himself much in the attacking third. But Donovan contributed in lots of subtle ways, particularly with his clever combination play that helped the Yanks keep possession for long stretches.
F, Brian Ching, 7 -- People clamoring for new faces up front will rip him for missing that sitter near the end, but the big Hawaiian played his role as a target forward to perfection. He was able to effectively body up with his back to goal from start to finish and set up the winning strike doing just that.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 6 -- Was lively when he replaced Dempsey in the 77th minute. That energy stretched a tiring opponent and helped preserve the win. Kljestan would have picked up a nice assist had Ching converted in stoppage time.
Editor's note: McIntyre captured the essence of Cuba while on location with his camera. Check out his photo gallery here.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.