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Cosmos excited about playing in Cuba

Cosmos forward Mads Stokkelien reacts after scoring a

Cosmos forward Mads Stokkelien reacts after scoring a penalty shot goal in a Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup game against the Jersey Express at St. John's University in Jamaica, New York on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Credit: Steven Ryan

When the Cosmos take the Estadio Pedro Marrero field in Havana Tuesday night, their encounter with the Cuban national team could go beyond being just another international friendly match. It just might be another important step in international diplomacy between the United States and Cuba.

The Cosmos will become first American pro sports team to play there since President Obama announced his plan to begin normalizing relations with Cuba in December. Travel from the United States to Cuba has been restricted since the missile crisis of October, 1962.

They are the first U.S. pro team to visit the island since the Baltimore Orioles in 1999 and the first for pro soccer since the Chicago Sting in 1978.

A capacity crowd of 30,000 is expected at the stadium, built in 1929 and renamed after a soldier who died in the 1953 Cuban Revolution.

"We never thought that we'd have this type of event in Cuba," Cuba national coach Walter Benitez said. "So it's even more exciting."

No one will talk about the political ramifications, but sometimes the act of just being there does a lot. Think what ping-pong diplomacy did to help thaw relations between the U.S. and China in the 1970s.

The Cosmos, who played at Minnesota United Saturday night, and the legendary Pele are scheduled to take a charter flight from JFK Airport to Havana Sunday night. What they will see might surprise them because the sports landscape has changed dramatically.

While Cuba is viewed as a baseball country, soccer interest has grown in leaps and bounds. Walk down Old Havana streets and it is not surprising to see fans wearing a Real Madrid, Barcelona or even Red Bulls jersey, and children kicking a ball around.

Current Cosmos and former Real and Spanish striker Raul sounded more like a wide-eyed rookie than someone who has won three UEFA Champions League titles and participated in three World Cups.

"It's an amazing opportunity," he said. "I am very excited. We hope for the Cosmos to do an amazing game. It's like a small party for soccer. It's a historic game."

The Cubans will use the match to prep for World Cup qualifiers against Curacao on June 10 and 14 and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the U.S. in July.

"This is a good level of football with the Cosmos," Benitez said. "This is going to help me prepare the team so it can reach a good level."

And perhaps more. In 1978 the Sting hosted Cuba in a return match in Chicago. "So I hope that the same will happen," Cuban Football Federation President Luis Hernandez said.

Outside of official competitions such as World Cup and Olympic qualifiers and the Gold Cup, no Cuban team has visited the U.S., and the country has endured a major talent drain. Since 2002, 18 players -- 16 men and two women -- defected while Cuban national sides performed in the U.S. and Canada.

Defections included Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who wants to play for the U.S. national team, former Real Salt Lake midfielder Yordany Alvarez and ex-Montreal Impact forward Eduardo Sebrango, who was allowed to return to Cuba after marrying a Canadian woman, but was banned from playing for his national side.

Cosmos players Carlos Mendes (Mineola), Leo Fernandes (North Babylon) and Jimmy Mulligan (Medford) won't be the first Long Island players to perform in Cuba. They will follow in the footsteps of ex-Sting midfielder Dan McCrudden, who grew up in Kings Park and remembered the 1962 missile crisis when the team came to Cuba 16 years later.

"There was a lot of unusual circumstances," he said. "They took our passports. The strangest thing occurred. Behind the hotel, when we looked out our window we saw this huge thing with a cover over it. When you walked around the hotel and looked down that street, it was closed off. It actually turned out to be a covered missile [he laughs]. We knew exactly where we were and that thing was probably pointed back at the states. That was really shocking."

Missiles will be far from anyone's mind Tuesday. Sport and diplomacy will be forefront.

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