HAVANA -- Ah, the magic of CONCACAF.
Friday night’s historic friendly between Cuba and the US national team offered it all: a retro-fantastic, manually operated scoreboard, a bumpy pitch ringed by a running track, and enough direct sunlight and humidity to make everyone look like they had just showered – when it was very, very much the opposite. (Oh, wait, there were some actual rain showers, portended by dramatic thunderclaps that sounded after an announcer identified the pre-match dignitaries on the field.)
The match, at Havana’s Estadio Pedro Marrero also, naturally, offered some more CONCACAF-y goodness – a scrappy, frustrating, scoreless first half, with finally some breakaway magic in the second. And that came perfectly, blissfully, at the hands – err, feet – of fan favorite Chris Wondolowski as the US beat Cuba 2-0.
He finally opened the scoring at the 62nd minute when he sent home a rebound from a Julian Green shot and finally gave the US a lead. More CONCACAF magic: The scoreboard, a beautiful, hand-painted, manually operated creation, didn’t change instantly, naturally. It took a few more minutes for it to display a goal for the visitors, when the hole for the number opened up, a man in a t-shirt looked outside, then finally found the “1” and inserted it in the slot.
Wondolowski commented in the mixed zone after the whistle – well, actually, is it a “mixed zone” when you’re the only English-language journalist who made it to the game? So Wondo – completely sweat-drenched, still catching his breath, commented in our private audience that he was stoked to quickly make a difference in the game’s second half. “When you come in as a sub, you have to make opportunities fast,” he said. “We started making tighter passes and got it together.”
But on the attack, Wondo didn’t work wonders alone – shortly after, he in turn helped out Green, serving him up an assist to finally give the young standout his own successful shot. “We had to start to go 1v1 and take shots on goal. I had two or three 1v1 situations in the first half, and the shots weren’t good enough,” Green said. “I feel pretty good combining with Wondo; Wondo’s a good player.”
And while internet haters often like to nitpick Jurgen Klinsmann’s love for Wondo, in his own post-game press conference, he smiled as he spoke of Wondo, his perfect teeth shining. (How could we observe his teeth? The conference happened again, quite literally, around a conference table in an adjoining building, up a steep, tropical-forest-lined, paved hill from the pitch.)
“I’ve always said Wondo is a huge part of the group, because he’s a giver,” he said. “He drives the energy and the chemistry of the team. I’m really happy he came in and scored.”
Wondo and company’s success, though, came in spite of some less than optimal conditions, everyone echoed. “It was a tough field, tough conditions, and a very tight Cuban team,” he said.
Klinsmann, for his part, went further. “It was a tremendous experience, but at the end of the day, the field was a field that was not playable,” he said. “It’s done; I’m glad everyone’s healthy -- except Steve Birnbaum, who got a cut.”
Luckily, Wondo leaves very much in top form as the squad looks ahead to its next friendly, vs. New Zealand at RFK Stadium on Oct. 11 (8 pm ET; ESPN/UniMás), and World Cup qualifying against Mexico at MAPFRE Stadium on Nov. 11. He also leaves as a big-time fan of Cuba. More than anything from the game play itself, he said, his favorite moments of the trip came while wandering Havana itself. “I was walking around and just loved the old buildings and the old cars and everything,” he said. “The best part was just how beautiful it is, the country and the people.”