HAVANA -- The Stars and Stripes was among a line of flags flying in front of the U.S. soccer team's hotel on the Cuban capital's storied seaside Malecon boulevard Thursday night.
It's been quite awhile since that happened. But then, it's also been 61 years since an American national soccer team visited the communist-run island.
Both sides insist Saturday night's U.S.-Cuba World Cup qualifier is about soccer -- not politics. But Washington's nearly 50-year-old trade embargo ensures that American players wouldn't have the chance to visit this nation if not for the game.
"Obviously, we wouldn't know what to expect seeing that this is the first time being in the country," U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu said after arriving at the Melia Cohiba Hotel. "But I think we're all just taking it in, trying to enjoy the experience and taking advantage of every moment right now,"
Coach Bob Bradley said he discussed the political situation between the two countries "a little bit" with his players.
"I don't think there's extra pressure, but we do understand the fact that this game will bring extra attention," Bradley said. "We really motivate ourselves at times knowing that more people than usual will follow the match, and that it's an opportunity always to show off our team."
It's the U.S. national team's first trip to the island since an exhibition game in 1947, when the Americans lost 5-2, though an under-20 team played in Havana in 1991, during the Pan American Games.
The national team is 5-1-1 against Cuba overall. The Americans are coming off a 1-0 win at Guatemala in their opener of the semifinals of the North and Central American and Caribbean region. Cuba appeared overmatched in a 3-1 home loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Aug. 20.
Two teams from the four-nation group will advance to next year's six-national regional finals. Three teams qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and the No. 4 team meets the fifth-place nation in South America for another berth.
While the United States is ranked 28th in the world, Cuba is tied with Oman for 92nd.
"We can certainly find results which serve as a warning to never take an opponent lightly," Bradley said. "Teams tend to rise to the occasion when there is so much is on the line."
To prepare for the heat, the U.S. team practiced four times this week in a suburb north of Miami. But there's little the Americans can do to get ready for Pedro Marero, the crumbling, 80-year-old Havana stadium where the match will be played.
Painted a faded red and blue, the venue is falling apart. Some seats in the rows closest to the field are ever-covered with dust, bits of concrete and tile that is slowly flecking its way off the roof above. Officials erected the bare-bones lighting system only after FIFA announced the game's 8 p.m. start time.
While the United States is trying to appear in its sixth straight World Cup, Cuba is trying to make soccer's showcase for the first time since 1938.
"It's win or win," Cuba forward Jaime Colome said with a smile after practice Wednesday night.
Soccer enjoys little following in this baseball-crazy country, and only about 1,500 fans turned out for the loss to T&T. Officials have heavily publicized the game with the Americans on state-controlled radio and television in recent days and are hoping for a far larger crowd.
"Cuban soccer is not accustomed to playing at home, in front of a full stadium," Colome said. "Maybe that will affect our concentration, that of the younger players more than anything."
Cuba's players have also played down politics, while quietly admitting that all Cubans don't like to lose to Americans in any sport.
"It's a rival that motivates us to elevate our play," forward Leonel Duarte said. "But there's no political aspect to sports at this level."
U.S. D Steve Cherundolo is suspended for the game but eligible to play in the qualifier against Trinidad on Wednesday night at Bridgeview, Ill. ... The U.S. and Cuba played a pair of World Cup qualifiers at Mexico City in September 1949. They tied 1-1 in the first game and the Americans won the second 5-2. Overall, the U.S. is 5-1-1 against Cuba.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press