HAVANA -- Somewhere between the 1-0 win the Americans earned against Cuba and the more-lopsided victory many fans might have expected is a place the U.S. team would be wise to visit when it has the opportunity.
Yes, the U.S. gained the three points it wanted against a game but ultimately overmatched Cuban team Saturday night. And certainly there is something to be said for an 11-man defensive effort that can maintain a clean sheet while patiently searching for the only goal it needs to win.
Heck, throughout the years, teams such as Italy and Germany have used that very strategy to win seven World Cup titles between them.
But the sure own goal that U.S. goalie Tim Howard somehow managed to stop with about five minutes left to play clearly illustrates just how risky managing a one-goal lead can be.
And make no mistake -- the Cubans had other opportunities to make life difficult for the visitors.
"We really had a chance to win the game," Cuban coach Reinhold Fanz said afterward. "We didn't take our chances."
Buoyed by the historic occasion and by a much larger crowd (roughly 8,000) than they usually draw to Estadio Pedro Marrero, the Leones del Caribe came out quickly and matched the Americans at the beginning of each half, as Jensee Muñoz fired a volley wide of a gaping net in the opening minutes of the game and substitute Alain Cervantes sent a looping shot from far away inches over the crossbar right after the intermission ended.
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By the time the final whistle blew, the Americans' superior fitness, technical ability, tactical awareness and experience had predictably enabled them to prevail on the strength of Clint Dempsey's first-half goal. But it's important not to forget that anything can happen in a soccer match, particularly one in CONCACAF, where one dubious penalty call can scupper the best-laid plans in an instant.
"The last thing you want is to give away something early," U.S. forward Landon Donovan said. "That's how these games are."
The point is this: Although the U.S. team deserves full credit for winning two difficult road matches to begin this potentially treacherous round of qualifying, it has done so by using a combination of grit, good fortune and Howard. The Americans didn't create many quality chances against either Guatemala or Cuba, and with all due respect to Brian Ching, who next to Howard was the best player on the field Saturday, their forwards still simply cannot score.
Even the once-dynamic duo -- Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley -- seems to have contracted the dreaded anti-goalitis. Beasley missed two golden chances against Cuba (one was correctly ruled offside, but still), while Donovan, who was playing so far from goal that at times he resembled a third defensive midfielder, hasn't looked truly dangerous for the national team in a long, long time.
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Coach Bob Bradley has done a fine job getting his charges to buy into the team-defense philosophy. But once a berth in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying is in the bag, the games will get only tougher. As important as it is to have your defensive house in order, the fact of the matter is, you have to score goals to win games.
Sooner or later, one goal won't be enough.
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.