U.S. focused ahead of Cuba trip

September 1, 2008

MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- Landon Donovan took off his shirt and soaked in the South Florida sun as he walked off the field Monday, chuckling at the dozen or so college girls photographing his every move.

Don't expect Donovan and the United States men's soccer team to get such a friendly reception at their next stop: The national team's first match in Cuba in 61 years.

And don't expect the U.S. to focus on anything but soccer, either.

"We're not going there to be political," Donovan said Monday. "I'm not going there to make any political statements. I'm going there to play and try to win. That (political) part of it is real, but the reason we're there is to play soccer. And that's what we have to remember."

The U.S. team held the first of four practices in this north Miami suburb as it prepared to play Cuba in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in Havana on Saturday. The Americans are coming off a 1-0 win over Guatemala and are heavily favored against a Cuban squad that lost to Trinidad and Tobago 3-1 in a qualifier on Aug. 20.

The U.S. national team has traveled to Cuba only once, losing 5-2 in 1947, although the under-20 team played in Havana in 1991 during the Pan American Games.

Most U.S. fans won't be able to attend the game because of the government's restrictions on travel to the communist nation, leaving the U.S. team unsure of what kind of reception it will receive.

"I'm hoping it will be good," midfielder Eddie Lewis said. "But certainly with the political situation between our two countries, we might hear a little more jeers. Not that most guys on our team understand Spanish."

Though baseball-crazy Cuba would need to score a major upset to bolster its chances of qualifying for the nation's first World Cup since 1938, goalie Dany Luis Quintero said "our motivation is always greater against a rival like the United States."

"Cubans don't like to lose to the United States," he said. "The fans are more motivated and we are hoping for a full stadium."

The U.S. knows it needs a win to stay on track to qualify for the World Cup. The Americans play Trinidad and Tobago on Sept. 10 in Bridgeview, Ill., and wins against both countries would all but assure a berth on soccer's biggest stage.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley said it's important his team doesn't lose focus with the distractions that could surround the game in Havana.

"It's been a real long time so I think for our team, our players, it's a tremendous opportunity," Bradley said of the trip. "It's certainly a unique experience and one everybody is looking forward to. We just need to make sure we keep our concentration on the importance of the game with qualifying for the World Cup."

Luis Hernandez, president of the Cuban Soccer Association, downplayed the political significance of the game, which is being televised on cable in the United States.

"The political aspect has nothing to do with it," Hernandez said Monday outside Havana's Pedro Marero Stadium, the small and crumbling concrete venue of Saturday's game. "The U.S. players are just athletes, soccer players, and we are too."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press