HAVANA - With few fans in the stands and little light on the field, the United States hung on to win its first soccer game in Cuba since 1947, beating the hosts 1-0 in a sloppy, sleepy World Cup qualifier Saturday night.
Clint Dempsey scored late in the first half and Tim Howard made two key saves to give the United States its third straight road win in qualifying from the North and Central American and Caribbean region.
"They did a pretty good job of making it hard on us," Landon Donovan said. "They never really took the chances to get back in the game so it kind of limited itself to trying to get the second goal if we could, but we felt that they weren't going to have real chances."
Half of the lights at rain-soaked Pedro Marrero Stadium went out in the 86th minute, causing a brief delay before the final minutes of the low-energy match were played out in the gloom.
In the 40th minute, Oguchi Onyewu sent a pass into the box from midfield and Dempsey jumped up with two Cuban defenders, one of whom mistakenly headed the ball straight to Brian Ching.
Ching held off a defender and dropped the ball to Dempsey, who was all but unmarked and netted from 12 yards out.
"Ching somehow ended up getting himself in front of the defender and doing a good job of shaking him and giving me a good pass that allowed me to score," Dempsey said. "Without him being there, I don't think I would have gotten that opportunity."
The U.S. embargo meant there were almost no Americans among the roughly 8,000 in the stands, though a few officials from the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy, organized a special trip to the game.
A few brave souls even came with faces obscured by sunglasses and bandannas patterned like the American flag to prevent identification and retribution by the U.S. government for breaking the trade sanction against the country that has been in effect since 1962.
Afterward, American players came back onto the field to thank their fans, but most of the Cuban fans stopped to applaud them as well.
A thunderstorm soaked the field two hours before kickoff, making for swampy conditions. Footing and ball control was difficult for both teams.
Cuba began the second half with a flurry of chances but failed to put a shot on goal until the 56th minute, when Pedro Silvio fed unmarked substitute Aliani Cervantes on the left side for a hard shot that Howard dived to stop with two Cuban players nearby, awaiting a rebound.
"It meant a lot to them and as a result it was a tight, difficult game," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said.
The U.S. controlled play well after that, slowing down the tempo and keeping the Cubans tentative and off-balance just enough to make their lead last.
"We committed individual errors," Cuba coach Reinold Franz said. "We really had a chance to win the game, but we made some mistakes. We didn't take our chances. We had three or four chances, but I think we played OK."
In the 88th minute, Howard had to make a diving save to his left when a free kick got loose and squirted toward the net.
"Crazy bounces happen like that," Howard said. "If that goes in we're going home with our heads hung low."
Soccer has almost no following on this baseball-crazy island, but the political overtones of a home game with the Americans piqued interest.
Fans booed when the Americans took the field- though they applauded U.S. players during introductions - then screamed long and loud from the start of the contest, chanting "cu-cu-cu-Cuba!" A small section banged a drum and danced for long stretches, a practice common throughout the Caribbean and often seen during baseball games here.
"The atmosphere was good. It was kind of like a carnival, you could hear the music in the background," Howard said. "For all the people back home: This is a fantastic place. They've given us nothing but love here."
Tickets cost just a peso, a bit more than four American pennies, and many students and young communist groups got in without even paying that, bused in for extra support by the government.
In that 1947 contest, a friendly in Havana, the United States fell to Cuba 5-2. But they have not lost since, now improving to 6-0-1 against the Cubans.
The United States leads Group One of the CONCACAF semifinals with six points after an earlier win at Guatemala. In the previous round, they won 1-0 at Barbados.
The U.S. is trying to reach South Africa in 2010 for its sixth straight World Cup. Cuba hasn't qualified since 1938.
The top two teams in the group that also contains Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala will advance to the six-team finals. Three teams qualify from the region for the 2010 World Cup, and the No. 4 team meets the fifth-place team from South America for another berth.