HAVANA, Cuba -- Five thoughts after the U.S.’s 1-0 win over Cuba in Saturday’s Concacaf semifinal-round World Cup qualifier (many thanks to the Cuban federation for the excellent wifi in the stands, better than any Caribbean or Central American venue I can remember):
• The U.S. is doing just enough to win ... and not much more. The U.S. now has a perfect six points from this round’s two games of World Cup qualifying, but the 1-0 wins against Guatemala and Cuba were hardly inspiring from a style-points perspective. If U.S. coach Bob Bradley is going to continue leaving young attacking options like Kenny Cooper, Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu off his rosters, the players who do get picked need to show they can be offensive threats. Continuing to use two holding midfielders (Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu, in this case) seems overly conservative, especially against a lineup of amateurs on a bottom-feeding Cuba side. Edu, in particular, had a poor game against Cuba, causing several give-aways with misguided passes, some of them coming without any defensive pressure on him.
• Frankie Hejduk is U.S. Soccer’s all-time Energizer Bunny. Who would have believed the 34-year-old Hejduk would still be a major contributor in World Cup qualifying in the year 2008? I started wondering if he was past it in 2002 (when he proved me wrong with a sensational World Cup) but it’s clear that Hejduk’s experience and speed can still come in handy. Forced into a starting right-back role due to Steve Cherundolo’s expulsion against Guatemala, Hejduk sped up and down the flank all night. It was Hejduk who drew a yellow card on Cuba’s Luis Villegas, and it was Hejduk who raced back 50 yards to snuff out a dangerous run midway through the first half by Roberto Linares. Whatever Hejduk is doing to stay fit is working in his fourth World Cup qualifying campaign. For all I know he’ll still be in the mix in 2012.
• The atmosphere at Concacaf World Cup qualifiers is awesome. It’s a shame that U.S. fans weren’t allowed to come here legally and enjoy a shared sports experience with the Cuban fans. But it’s a great scene like this at all of the U.S.’s road qualifiers in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The scene here featured the following: huge amplifiers blasting Cuban music into the crowd before the game; Cubans passing around a battle of Johnny Walker Black; down-and-dirty salsa dancing in the stands; a torrential downpour dripping through the corrugated-steel roof over the fans; a rickety stadium where the lights went out 30 minutes before kickoff, forcing the teams to warm up in the dark; flag-waving supporters galore; and enough gorgeous (and scantily-clad) men and women to make a New York dance-club look lame by comparison. Oh, and there was a soccer game too. Small wonder that a growing number of 20- and 30-something Americans are doing guerrilla tourism following the U.S. national team abroad.
• The most interesting guy I met all day was Manuel Díaz Rodríguez. Read more here.
• Through-balls: Cuban midfield Alain Cervantes provided a spark coming off the bench in the second half and dribbling rings around the Americans on a couple occasions. Why on earth didn’t he start the game? ... U.S. centerbacks Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu may not ever get high marks for their passing, but they haven’t allowed any goals in two road World Cup qualifiers, which is at least worth something ... I haven’t seen many teammates get as visibly frustrated with each other as the Cubans, who were waving their arms frantically at each other following the misplayed header by Carlos Francisco that led to Clint Dempsey’s goal ... Francisco had a rough night: not only did he make the mistake in his own box, but he had a gift-wrapped chance to score on Cuba’s first corner kick and shot wide.
Gotta write a magazine story for tomorrow morning, so my apologies for not having any postgame quotes online ...