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Cuba hold US to draw in soccer qualifying

Published on Thursday, March 13, 2008Email To Friend    Print Version

By Simon Evans

TAMPA, USA (Reuters): Cuba produced an upset by holding the United States to a 1-1 draw on Tuesday in the opening round of Olympic qualifying games for North and Central America.

The US who failed to qualify for the 2004 Games in Athens, are competing with CONCACAF rivals Cuba, Panama and Honduras in Group A in an eight-team tournament after which the two finalists will head to the Beijing Games in August.

"The US played very well but we improved after the break and I think it was a fair result," Cuba coach Raul Gonzalez told reporters.

The Caribbean island nation has never played the US at this level before.

US coach Peter Nowak said there was no cause for panic.

"It was the first game and we know we should have played better and that we will play better -- everything is open in this group," he said.

The US dominated the early stages and went ahead in the 14th minute through Freddy Adu whose low shot from wide on the right skidded through a crowded penalty area into the far corner.

Three minutes before the break, however, Roberto Linares poked home a low cross-shot from Yordany Alvarez to bring Cuba level.

Linares was sent off in the 84th minute for a second bookable offence.

The US went close on several occasions after the break but were unable to make the most of their pressure and the Cubans, who last made the Olympic soccer competition in 1980, celebrated almost as if they had enjoyed victory.

There were few witnesses to their achievement though -- a crowd of just 4,359 turned out at the 66,000 capacity Raymond James stadium for the game with just a small pocket of evident support from Florida's Cuban-American community.

A 90th-minute goal from Hendry Thomas gave Honduras a 1-0 win over Panama in the group's other game.

Mexico, Haiti, Guatemala and Canada begin action in Group B, in Carson, California on Thursday.

The top two in each group go through to a knockout semi-final stage with the two finalists qualifying for the Olympics.
 
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