It is the eternal question not just for the U.S. national team, but for any team that is involved World Cup qualifying: What is more important? Playing pretty soccer or playing winning soccer?
Through the first two games of the CONCACAF semifinal round, the United States will tell you playing winning soccer, especially on the road. Despite not having played near to their potential, the USA won its second consecutive game, a 1-0 result against Cuba Saturday night.
It was an historic match for many reasons. It was the first encounter between the two sides on this Caribbean island since 1947. It also was the USA's third consecutive qualifying win on the road, a record, after Clint Dempsey's decisive goal in the 40th minute.
"Exactly where we wanted to be," striker Brian Ching said. "Two tough road games."
"It wasn't much soccer played in either game," U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra added. "Obviously two road games, two wins. You can't get much better than that."
Actually, the U.S. probably can. The USA certainly can produce more scoring chances. Their defensive backline of Frankie Hejduk, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyweu and Heath Pearce played well in front of goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was forced to make a spectacular stop on a deflection off Bocanegra in the dying minutes of the match before an estimated 10,000 spectators at Estadio Pedro Marrero.
The CONCACAF Group 1 semifinal encounter certainly will not go down in the books as one of the prettiest in U.S. soccer history. But it kept the U.S. (2-0) on track to reach next year's final round of qualifying. They play host to Trinidad & Tobago in Bridgeview, Ill. Wednesday.
The Cubans (0-2), however, moved a step closer to elimination as they face an uphill battle after losing two consecutive home games. They hit the road in Guatemala Wednesday.
They can thank Dempsey for part of that. Defender Oguchi Onyewu sent the ball in from the right side to Dempsey, who had two defenders on him. Cuba's Carlos Francisco got the ball but headed it off Dempsey and it went to Ching. Ching dumped the ball off to Dempsey, who then fired a 12-yard shot into the lower left corner past goalkeeper Odelin Molina.
"Brian Ching did a good job holding the ball up and laying it off to me," Dempsey said. "I tried to get a good first touch to open myself up to the goal and just hit it hard and low to the near post. That was a difficult one for the keeper to save." Howard, a former MetroStars netminder, made a diving, one-handed save to his right on a deflection off of Bocanegra, who was trying to clear a dangerous ball into the area in the 87th minute.
"It just got headed back in and I half went to clear it," said Bocanegra, who said the ball hit off his leg or shin. "It just skipped up on me. ... I stopped and I was in between it. It went for the goal and Timmy made an unbelievable recovery."
Added Howard: "We got away with it."
The last time the full U.S. national team played in Cuba, in 1947, it suffered a 5-2 loss. Much has changed, certainly politically, since then.
While there was some concern that the crowd would be hostile, the crowd actually cheered the U.S. during pregame introductions, although the public address announcer mistakenly called Maurice Edu, Freddy Adu. Adu was not with the team.
"Definitely a surprise," Dempsey said of the cheering. "We never experienced that, sometimes even playing at home."
In fact, many spectators started to file out in the 78th minute, obviously disappointed with their team. After referee Joel Antonio Aguilar called the game, the U.S. players appeared to be applauding the Cuban fans, who returned the praise. However, it wasn't as it seemed.
"There was just an American flag and some people there," forward Landon Donovan said. "We were just applauding them."
Due to severe travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, U.S. soccer fans were few and far between. If any were at the game, it was because they were on special business here or entered the country in violation of the U.S. government. At least three Americans did make it down, although they apparently did it illegally since their faces were masked by red, white and blue flags to hide their identities. They also had a U.S. flag draped around their shoulders with a green Cuban hat with a mini-flag on it.
The quality of the game certainly wasn't helped by a field that had a good two hours of rain dumped on it prior to the match and for most of the second half.
Neither team had many chances. The USA, heavily favored entering the match, did not produce very many dangerous opportunities. Its lack of offense allowed the Cubans, who played with a lot of heart, to stay close. The opportunistic play of Roberto Linares and Jensee Munoz gave the hosts the ball in the attacking third, but they couldn't solve Howard.
"They actually played well," Donovan said. "They were a better team than what we thought they were. ... They did a pretty good job of making it hard on us. I don't think they ever took the chances to get back in the game."
Added Bocanegra: "They got tired towards the end."
Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.