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What's at stake for USA against Cuba?
by Ridge Mahoney, October 10th, 2008 7AM

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Can the USA really prove anything by beating Cuba Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, Galavision) in their qualifying match at RFK Stadium?

It can do nothing except accomplish what has been a foregone conclusion since it won for the third time in three games Sept. 9 by efficiently dispatching Trinidad & Tobago, 3-0, at Toyota Park. And no matter how much it wins by or who scores the goals, nothing much will have been attained.

It has already slammed a Concacaf minnow at home in the previous round, to wit an 8-0 pasting of Barbados in June. It began the semifinal round by winning a qualifier in Guatemala for the first time. It traveled to Havana last month for the first time in 59 years and endured all the hoopla and hype to secure a 1-0 victory.

Should Jozy Altidore or Freddy Adu or Charlie Davies play well on Saturday, some observers will be delighted, but the Cubans are hardly the caliber of foe most of the national team players face every week in matches, be it in Europe, Mexico, or MLS.

Yet what the team can attain against a weak foe is cementing another stone of solidarity in its foundation by going about is business professionally and expertly, and perhaps bring more young players into the fold. Of the three uncapped players summoned by Coach Bob Bradley, one has attracted great notice.

Juan Francisco Torres, a native of Longview, Texas, who plays for Mexican club Pachuca and has dual citizenship, is still a few weeks short of his 21st birthday, and has never played for the United States or Mexico. FIFA regulations permit a player younger than 21 to change his national-team allegiance, but only if he is eligible to play for the second country when he represented the first, and only if he has yet to play in a competitive 'A' international.

Torres is of Mexican descent and has been contacted by the Mexican federation but accepted the U.S. call-up presumably with the goal of being named to the match squad of 18 players. By putting him on the game-day roster and into the match, Bradley can eliminate the possibility of him playing for Mexico in the future.

This game of cat-and-mouse, as well as the ever-present possibility of Cuban players defecting during their stay in Washington, D.C., and the clamor in certain circles that Bradley jettison older players in favor of Adu, Altidore, or Davies, who are in the squad, or others such as Marvell Wynne, who isn't, have cast an almost surreal atmosphere over the match.

If there's one thing Bradley has tried to ingrain into his players, all of them, since taking over the national team two years ago, it's the ability to block out distractions, whatever their source: travel delays, fatigue, jet lag, press hordes, grabbing tickets for friends and family, adjusting to different positions and formations and teammates, etc.

The younger players, when summoned, are not present to revel in the experience, but to produce. Eight of the 23 players called up by Bradley are 22 or younger.

In the past 10 months, midfielder Maurice Edu has bounced between continents and competitions and U.S. teams. He captained the U.S. at the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers in March, began the MLS season with Toronto FC in April, played for the U.S. in the back line at the Olympic Games in China in August, was sold by MLS to Scottish club Glasgow Rangers before the Sept. 1 European transfer deadline, came back from Scotland for qualifiers in Guatemala and Cuba, went back to Scotland, and this week is in Washington, D.C.

Less than two years ago, his soccer world centered on winning college games for Maryland. Now he travels the world as one of America's brightest young prospects. He doesn't turn 22 until next April. He'll recall, whether or not Bradley reminds him and the team, that in the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers, the Americans tied Cuba, 1-1, in Tampa.

"It kind of opens your eyes," he says of his whirlwind life. "When you're at home just watching the games you just dream about playing for the [national] team, but when you get to a camp, you really experience it.

"You talk to the coaches, you hear what they have to say, and you take a lot more pride whenever you step on the pitch. You start to realize the importance behind it and what it really means. I'm still learning that, you know, and I'm understanding it a little bit more than when I first came to the camp."

Every camp and game, even one against Cuba, brings another dose of that understanding.



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