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As USMNT travels to Cuba, soccer is secondary to politics and sponsorships

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A lack of professional players and a poor playing surface make injuries more likely than a competitive match on Friday when the United States plays in Cuba. Why was U.S. Soccer so interested in scheduling this particular exhibition?

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The United States is preparing to travel to Cuba to play its first friendly against the island nation since 1947. The only other visit was for a World Cup Qualifying match ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup; the U.S. won 1-0 on September 6, 2008.

While U.S. Soccer may be promoting this exhibition as an act of international goodwill, the soccer benefit of playing a national team like Cuba is next to none. Aside from Osvaldo Alonso, the best Cuban players have only reached the lower divisions of American soccer after acclimatizing to a professional training regime.

Cuba does not offer the United States a test in terms of soccer prowess, not even for fringe players or promising teenagers. The only foreseeable challenge for American players during the upcoming match at Estadio Pedro Marrero is avoiding injuries from a questionable playing surface and the amateur tackles flying in from their opponents. Peering just below the surface, this exhibition fixture appears to have much more to do with politics than with soccer.

There are three Cubans with the Charleston Battery (Odisnel Cooper, Heviel Cordoves, and Maikel Chang), a couple Cubans have played for Orange County Blues FC (Jose Pepe Miranda and Erlys Garcia), Miami FC and Fort Lauderdale Strikers each have a Cuban player (Ariel Martinez and Jorge Luis Corrales, respectively), and "Super Dario" Suarez lit up the fourth division National Premier Soccer League for AFC Ann Arbor. Several Cubans are also plying their trade in the semi-professional lower divisions of Mexican soccer: Maikel Reyes, Abel Martinez, and Yaudel Lahera.

None of these teams come close to the quality of any of the members of the United States men's national team.

It was a similar story when the Nats played against Puerto Rico on May 22 as a warm-up match of sorts before the Copa America kicked off. The best players on that Puerto Rico squad were NASL and USL players and the match was contested about as hotly as a training scrimmage.

The prospects on the field for the Cuban national team are even more meager. The best players on the Leones del Caribe could become USL- or NASL-level players after a year of serious training but right now the USMNT would get a much more competitive outing by playing New York Red Bulls II or Indy Eleven.

On September 21, photos made the rounds on social media showing the condition of the pitch that the national team will play on in Cuba. The field appeared flooded with deep furrows lining the surface.

There are zero soccer-related positives to hope for from this match and a slew of potential negatives in the form of injuries. Playing a match on an unacceptable field against amateurs with no formal professional training presents ample opportunities for American players to pick up injuries. After the photos of the playing surface at the Estadio Pedro Marrero circulated, numerous national team fans prayed that their favorite players would not be named to the squad for the game in Cuba.

Typifying the difficult weather conditions in September and early October, the height of Cuba's hurricane season, news over the weekend swirled with fears about Hurricane Matthew. Based on the physical infrastructure, the lack of resources devoted to the national soccer program, and the photos of the stadium, there is little hope that the field at Estadio Marrero will drain well in time for the match on October 7.

Why would the USMNT arrange this friendly if they could get better competition on a safe field by playing any USL or NASL team? The answer is purely political.

Mixing soccer with politics

Surely the winds of change appear to be picking up in the relations between Cuba and the United States. The Obama Administration has reached out over the past several years to open up communication with the regime of Raúl Castro on the island. Embassies have been open for over a year and the first commercial flight to Cuba recently left the U.S. Things are certainly changing within and around Cuba - but this game is a misguided attempt at symbolic progress.

The world of soccer is no stranger to popping into the real world with such symbolic acts. Under Sepp Blatter's direction, FIFA was hell-bent on showing that an African country was prepared to host the world's largest sporting event in 2010. The massive debts incurred by South Africa, not least because public money was diverted from necessary infrastructure to renovate and build stadiums, shows that the truth wasn't so rosy.

Blatter promised that South Africa would be ready to host the 2010 World Cup as a representative of the modernized African continent. This hype over the potential economic growth of South Africa coincided with its inclusion to BRICS group of rising economies. Aside from the unavoidable influence of corruption, FIFA wanted to use the World Cup to prove a point about an African country joining the club of host-nations as an equal. This was part of Blatter's publicized plan of rotating the hosting duties from continent to continent around the globe regardless of preparation levels, discretionary budget availability, or history of human rights.

In a similar act, the world governing body awarded the 2022 hosting rights to Qatar, a repressive government on the Arabian Peninsula. Is Qatar ready to show the world it can host the World Cup? Absolutely not, but whether through FIFA or some twisted sense of providing opportunities to unlikely hosts, the tournament will go through despite the mounting death tolls on World Cup construction sites.

When soccer organizations stride into geopolitical waters to attempt to make a statement, they usually slip up.

Cuban National Team's recent off-field struggles

As the nation of Cuba stands at a turning point in its historical relationship with the United States, the AFC appears to be unraveling. Internal disputes over the direction of the soccer program on the island have led to a breakdown of the existing meager accommodations for the national team.

Last week, news surfaced that in addition to the terrible conditions of the announced stadium, the Cuban national team players themselves were suffering through ignoble circumstances. A Cuban journalist who works for state owned television network recently took to social media to vent his frustrations about the Asociación de Fútbol de Cuba (AFC).

Mario Herrera screengrab.JPG

It's a shame that the players of the national team of Cuba, the same players who will face the United States next October 7, they have to bathe with a hose outside, and must complete training to prepare for lunch or eat at the Cerro Pelado school, so they go in the school bus and lose recovery time after a day of training. That worth knowing that the President of the AFC, and he alone, is able to go down there barefoot with a machine to mow the grass because nobody else would do so. And hopefully they don't have the athletes clear the grounds, and let's hope that what happened before doesn't happen again, if my memory serves correctly, like a Pedro Faife novel, in which he cut himself with a machete in that grind. What a pity.

Players are cutting the grass on their training fields themselves because no one else is available to do it. Players are hosing themselves off outside behind the locker rooms after training because there are no functional showers.

While the game offers nothing to the United States in terms of soccer, the same is the case from the Cuban side. The Cuban league, a paltry amateur set up with teams playing a short circuit during the dry season, ended in June. National team players have not been playing organized soccer for three months ahead of the match against the United States.

Back in March when the senior men's national team traveled to face French Guiana in a Caribbean Cup Qualification match, the players were subject to head-scratching conditions. The team traveled to Suriname, a neighboring country on the northern coast of South America, before switching into small boats to get to the adjacent nation of French Guiana. The night prior to the competitive fixture, members of the Cuban team slept on chairs or on the floor as no hotel had been arranged. Swirling in many players' minds were the still-unpaid performance bonuses from the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Undoubtedly the off-field issues surrounding the squad affected the Cuban team's play as the favorites from the group finished in last place, meaning the team that won the Caribbean Cup in 2012 fell at the first hurdle just two editions of the competition later.

In a match hosted by Cuba in the Caribbean Cup Qualification back in March of this year, less than 100 people were reported in the crowd at Estadio Marrero against Bermuda. Though the Cuban national team won that match 2-1, knowing that the stadium the USMNT will play at next week gets such a low turnout is yet another alarm bell.

In recent youth tournaments, the Cuban sides have been sporting an odd jersey. The AFC has a sponsorship deal with apparel company Joma but the Cuban teams were wearing generic tops with Adidas logos. The AFC crest was also missing from these jerseys. Instead of proudly wearing Joma jerseys emblazoned with the emblem of the AFC, both u-17 and u-20 national teams were wearing standard, plain Adidas tops.

Has the Joma deal ended in recent months? Has the AFC simply purchased cheap alternatives in bulk for their players? Neither option signals strength or stability from the AFC.

Individuals close to Cuban soccer have told me that residents living near Estadio Pedro Marrero are not even aware of the upcoming match against the United States. If the game holds next to no value for either side in terms of soccer preparation or development, Cuba's national stadium has a recent track record of abysmal turnout, and the AFC doesn't have the commitment to provide basic services to their athletes, why is this game happening?

Sources with knowledge of Cuban soccer and the inner-workings of Cuban bureaucracy have suggested that certain members of the AFC negotiated the October 7 match with U.S. Soccer over the objections of fellow members.

The United States Soccer Federation sent a representative to Cuba in February to arrange the October 7 friendly and U.S. Soccer announced the match on June 30. From the world famous La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, this representative negotiated details about the exhibition match without ever stepping foot inside Estadio Pedro Marrero.

Cuban sources have suggested that the match is solely to beef up U.S. Soccer's political goodwill and to improve the potential for tourism-based investments in Cuba.

A flicker of hope for the Cuban soccer program

The one progressive note about this game, perhaps rising to the level of a silver lining, is that it will mark the first time players based in foreign leagues will be called into a Cuban national team camp. Maykel Reyes, an electric winger/forward that caught attention for his performances at the u17 CONCACAF and u20 CONCACAF tournaments, has been playing for Cruz Azul's lower division affiliate in Mexico. His teammate on Cruz Azul Hidalgo, Abel Martinez, will not feature for the national team while dealing with a doping scandal dating back to a Olympic Qualifying game against Canada last October.

The Cuban players in Mexico are eligible for selection to the national team because they left the island with the approval of the government. These players, unlike those who moved to the United States, are still recognized by the federation through a program instituted as part of the economic opening process. This recent batch of players got formal permission to travel abroad to work and to send remittances back to the island.

If Reyes is called and does play, he could mark a turning point in the recent history of Cuban soccer and could very well motivate the federation. With conditions on the island so poor, both in real economic terms and in terms of soccer development, the only chance a player has to make a living in the game is to leave Cuba. If the government would not only stop threatening the families of those who leave (see: Yeniel Bermudez and Yendry Diaz) but but also continue to welcome those players to use the national team fixtures as a showcase, Cuba might start to live up to its moniker as the Lions of the Caribbean.

If this first exhibition in six decades sets a precedent for the opening of Cuba's soccer governing body, however, there could be substantial progress. Nearly every active national team in the Caribbean region faces the balancing act between homegrown talent and foreign-born descendants of the diaspora. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have both used players born in Britain and North America to achieve their successes in the Caribbean.

Cuba not only does not have access to this potential pool but also has effectively cut any players who leave the island from the national team pool. This has proven to be a losing battle for Cuba as rumors swirl that the technical staff have left certain players off of rosters to prevent the possibility of talents from deserting the national team while abroad. Standout midfielder Marcel Henández quit the national team and moved off the island since he was overlooked for the 2013 Gold Cup squad.

If the AFC builds on the precedent of calling in foreign-based players who recently moved abroad to pursue professional careers with Cuban government permission, the future could be rosy. Cuba raised some eyebrows by winning the 2012 Caribbean Cup but that type of success would regularly be within reach if the AFC attempts a rapprochement with the Cuban players in the United States and opens the door to descendants of Cubans born abroad.

USMNT fans should hope that the exhibition match against Cuba is a step toward that country's football association welcoming former players back into the fold. A Cuban national team with the likes of Chang, Cordoves, Cooper, and even Alonso makes the Caribbean regional and CONCACAF more competitive. In 2016, however, rampant organizational issues within the AFC make grand gestures and major developments less likely to succeed.

American business interests in Cuba

Official sponsors of U.S. Soccer have been lining up to cash in on the economic opening of Cuba. Notably, Marriott, the official hotel of U.S. Soccer, is in pole position to control the expanding public-private partnerships to operate hotels on the island.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts announced back in March that it signed agreements to operate three hotels in Cuba, marking the first such deal since the imposition of the trade embargo.  Marriott CEO Arne Sorensen accompanied President Obama on his trip to the island to make connections in what will be a boon of foreign investment. In September, Marriott successfully brokered a takeover/merger of Starwood, a process that began with a formal offer on March 18.

AT&T, the Official Communication Service Provider of US Soccer, also accompanied President Obama to Cuba in hopes of completing a business deal in March. Verizon had already offered roaming wireless service in Cuba as of September 2015 and Sprint offered a prepaid subscription service with access to Cuba in April 2015.

AmBev, a sister subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch's parent company AB InBev, acquired 50% equity interest in Cerveceria Bucanero S.A. (CBSA) in January 2014. The other 50% is held by the Cuban federal government. CBSA produces mainly for the Cuban market but exports limited portion of its products abroad and also imports to sell AmBev's products on the island. If full economic restrictions are dropped between the United States and Cuba, CBSA would be able to both sell to the United States and import Anheuser-Busch products to distribute on the island, both of which would be beneficial to the company that boasts the Official Malt Beverage Product (Budweiser) of U.S. Soccer.

Coca-Cola Femsa has been invested in a mutual fund called the Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund (CUBA) that has been waiting for the island nation to open up its markets to foreign investment and development. Cuba was one of two countries worldwide in which Coca-Cola did not sell products prior to recent developments.

Placing the Cuba match in context

Unlike many of the matches that Matt Doyle references in his piece on MLSSoccer.com about politically charged national team games, this week's exhibition takes place in a subdued geopolitical context. U.S. Soccer sees the national team game in Cuba as a low-risk high-reward prospect for political goodwill.

U.S. Soccer can take credit for any diplomatic successes and the appearance that the game is adding to positive momentum in Cuba's emergence from relative isolation while the negative aspects like the quality of play and the presentation will fall on the AFC's shoulders.

The warm reception offered by figures within the AFC meant that U.S. Soccer did not have to do much leg work in organizing the friendly.  A superficial analysis of the game as particularly beneficial to Cuban soccer at this time obfuscates and cloaks the true shortcomings of soccer on the island. This friendly doesn't address the underlying lack of resources and sporting infrastructure in Cuba or the political obstinacy that forced so many players to choose between a future with the national team and a professional soccer career abroad.

This friendly falls on a FIFA date and Cuba was available for the game after getting elimination from Caribbean Cup qualification on March 29. If the United States was merely focused on soccer and was looking for a regional opponent for an easy victory, thereby avoiding the political story, there are several teams without matches scheduled in October: Barbados, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Nicaragua.

U.S. Soccer wants to congratulate itself for taking the bold step of playing an exhibition match on the embargoed island and hopefully move along business prospects for its primary sponsors. The fixture is not nearly as bold as it first appears, as the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League traveled to Cuba in June 2015, and improving the climate for sponsors is a murky situation far-removed from the on-field operation of a soccer team.

It is cynical to assume the upcoming USMNT game in Cuba is solely for the benefit of U.S. Soccer sponsors but that connection presents a stronger case than anything directly related to soccer.

Why is the United States traveling to Cuba for a dangerous contest that holds no benefit in soccer terms? To make headlines and point to the progress made in opening up the island nation's economy over the past couple years.

Undoubtedly, the public relations spin from this match will paper over serious concerns not only about the soccer program on the island but also of the conditions many Cubans are living in.

At this point in time, this exhibition match bears no immediate fruit for either the United States men's national team or the Cuba men's national team. I would be much more excited about the game as one of U.S. Soccer's sponsors than as a fan of either team.