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Originally published July 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 8, 2005 at 12:34 PM

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Soccer

U.S. overcomes slow start to beat Cuba

Landon Donovan could hardly stand it. He wanted into the game so badly, especially as the minutes ticked away. For 65 minutes of last night's...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Landon Donovan could hardly stand it. He wanted into the game so badly, especially as the minutes ticked away.

For 65 minutes of last night's U.S.-Cuba Gold Cup match, the most recognizable star of the American men's national team stewed on the bench, left out of coach Bruce Arena's starting lineup so that the U.S. staff could see what some less experienced players could do.

Finally, it was Donovan time. And the slight forward from Southern California took over, scoring twice in the game's final three minutes as the U.S. rallied for a 4-1 win over Cuba at Qwest Field.

Donovan's free kick in the 87th minute bent around the Cuban defensive wall and landed in the back left corner of the goal for the score that gave the Americans the lead for good.

"I was horrible at it [coming off the bench] my first couple of years in the MLS," said Donovan, who scored the 23rd and 24th goals of his national team career. "But I've gotten better at it. It's a lot more nerve-wracking sitting on the bench in a [close] game like that. I was just fidgety the whole time and it just sapped the energy out of me. Getting in, getting the ball in front of the goal and making things happen was crucial."

The match was more stressful than the U.S. team figured, as Cuba opened the scoring and the score was tied until Donovan's free kick. A loss to Cuba was virtually unimaginable.

But Cuba's upset bid failed to last more than a half. And after Donovan's goal, the U.S. scored twice more for good measure, one of the goals from midfielder DaMarcus Beasley on a breakaway. The U.S victory made a winner of goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, a Seattle native, in his first international game in almost nine years.

Gold Cup @ Qwest Field

Yesterday: Costa Rica 1, Canada 0 | U.S. 4, Cuba 1
Tomorrow: Costa Rica vs. Cuba, 11:30 a.m. | U.S. vs. Canada, 1:30 p.m.

"We felt over 90 minutes that they would fatigue and we would create some chances and get the second, maybe the third goal," Arena said. "I didn't anticipate that it was going to take 86 minutes to get the second goal."

Neither did anyone else, for the most part. Cuba is long out of contention for the 2006 World Cup, and is a virtual unknown in CONCACAF soccer because none of its players play abroad nor does the island nation have a professional league.

In fact, the U.S. hadn't lost to Cuba since 1947 and had not allowed the Cubans to score a goal since 1949. As for the Gold Cup, the Americans had shut out Cuba in all three previous meetings.

But forward Lester More silenced the pro-U.S. crowd of 15,831 when he sent an open shot past Hahnemann for a goal and 1-0 lead in the 18th minute.

More connected from the right side. He gathered in a pass from forward Alain Cervantes, who had dribbled around and through the American defense to the left of the goal box. Cervantes sent the ball past the outstretched leg of U.S. defender Tony Sanneh and in front of Hahnemann, where More had time to control and let loose.

More celebrated quietly, raising a finger to his mouth to shush the crowd.

The U.S. lineup played on with poise, however, even without established stars Donovan, goalkeeper Kasey Keller, forward Josh Wolff and defender Eddie Pope as starters.

Cuba began to unravel as the first half drew to a close. The U.S. offensive attack grew more confident and came with more pressure, effectively keeping Cuba from mounting another serious scoring threat.

Then, with less than a minute to play in the half, Beasley found an opening and got the ball inside the penalty box to midfielder Clint Dempsey. Though it appeared Dempsey was offside, no referee's whistle was heard.

Dempsey controlled the ball with his chest. Then he pushed a shot past Cuban goalkeeper Odelin Molina, who appeared to pause in confusion because offsides wasn't called.

Cuban defender Jaime Colome got a red card and was ejected five minutes into the second half.

José Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or jromero@seattletimes.com

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