In what was surely the least intimidating atmosphere the USA will face in their 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, it eked out a 1-0 over Cuba in Havana. The Cuban fans filled only half the Pedro Marrero Stadium and were more than 30 yards from the field because of the running track. They applauded as the American players were introduced, giving their loudest welcome to Landon Donovan. And they cheered when the Americans waved goodbye.
Midfielder Maurice Edu, who was misidentified by the P.A. man as the absent Freddy Adu, got the second loudest ovation.
The crowd got hope that the encounter between their underdog team and the giants from the north would be a thrilling one when in the third minute when Carlos Francisco met a corner kick inside goal area but mis-hit his volley.
Otherwise, there was little excitement or impressive soccer in a game hyped up because the nations' acrimonious political relationship.
For the first half hour, the Americans misplayed passes, often kicking the ball out of bounds, and rarely threatened. For their part, the Cubans made some hopeful forays through Jensee Munoz and Roberto Linares, but nothing to cause goalkeeper Tim Howard any worries.
In the 26th minute, DaMarcus Beasley played a one-two with Maurice Edu, who made the return pass while lying on the ground. Beasley chose to pass when it looked like he had good chance to rifle a shot past goalkeeper Odelin Molina and the opportunity was wasted.
Clint Dempsey, who had earlier shot wide twice, gave the Americans a lead in the 39th minute with a precise 12-yard shot after a scrappy buildup in which Francisco added to his bad night. The central defender misplayed Oguchi Onyewu's long, high pass into the penalty area.
Francisco's header bounced off the back of challenging Dempsey and fell to Ching. After fending off a defender, Ching slipped the ball to Dempsey, who scored his 12th U.S. goal in 44 appearances.
The USA started in a 4-5-1 formation, with Ching up top and Donovan roving behind him. Dempsey and Beasley played wide right and left in midfield, respectively. Michael Bradley and Edu were the centrally based defensive midfielders and did little to aid in attack.
On the backline, right back Frankie Hejduk and left back Heath Pearce flanked Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra.
As they had in the first half, the Cubans started lively in the second. Linares' 40-yard bomb in the 47th minute floated just over the crossbar and the Cubans kept the ball in the U.S. half for the first 10 minutes.
Halftime sub Alain Cervantes broke through in the 55th minute and Howard barely had to dive to make the catch. Then the Americans strung together a long series of passes for the first time - an episode that ended with Beasley shooting wide from afar.
Beasley had a better chance to score in the 60th minute when he rounded keeper Odelin Molina, retrieved the ball near the goal line, but shot wide past the far post with only two Cuban defenders to beat.
With 10 minutes left to play and the USA still leading by just one goal, many Cuban fans started streaming out of the stadium.
With five minutes left, just after a section of the floodlights went out, Howard had to make his toughest save of the evening. He reached down low on a spectacular dive to paw away a Cuban header that his own man, Bocanegra, stabbed in front of the box.
The Cubans played better than they had in their last game, against a weaker opponent, Trinidad & Tobago, which won 3-1 in Havana.
The Americans can be happy because now they have six points from two road games but there was little else to laud about how they clawed out the victory over a inferior opponent.
On Wednesday, the USA, which opened the semifinal group phase of qualifying with a 1-0 win at Guatemala Aug. 20, hosts Trinidad & Tobago in Bridgeview, Ill.
Sept. 6 Havana
Cuba 0 USA 1. Goal: Dempsey 40.
Cuba -- Molina, Minoso, Marquez, Clavelo, Munoz (Cervantes, 46), Domingo, Colome (Faife, 52), Fernandez, Cordovez, Villegas, Linares (Duarte, 67).
USA -- Howard, Pearce, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Hejduk, Beasley, Bradley, Edu, Dempsey (Kljestan, 77), Donovan, Ching.
Yellow cards: Cuba -- Villegas 26, Clavelo 71; USA -- Bradley 37, Hejduk 50.
Referee: Joel Aguilar (El Salvador).
Shots: USA 6, Cuba 8
Shots on Goal: USA 2, Cuba 3
Saves: USA 3, Cuba 1
Corner Kicks: USA 3, Cuba 3
Fouls: USA 15, Cuba 6
Offside: USA 2, Cuba 0