TORONTO – Already eliminated from World Cup contention, Cuba's night went from bad to worse on Friday when five players apparently defected ahead of the team's matchup against Canada at BMO Field.
A Cuban official told Sportsnet shortly before kickoff that Cuba traveled with 16 players, but the team only dressed only 11 in Friday's lineup. The group that remained after the 3-0 loss to Canada - nearly as many coaches as players after the five disappeared sometime earlier on Friday - huddled near midfield for what was likely an emotional end to an exhausting day.
“For you guys to know, there were two players who were injured,” Cuban head coach Alexander Gonzalez said through a translator. “One of the players had five stitches on his leg and he played the whole game. The other player was also seriously injured and he also played the whole game. [I] want to try to integrate and unify the team and introduce some new players into the program.”
When he heard about the drama surrounding the Cuban team, Canadian head coach Stephen Hart didn’t tell his players right away, and instead waited until closer to game time to inform them their opponents didn't have any available substitutes.
For players and coach alike, it was a wholly unfamiliar experience.
“We looked at the lineup and it was largely their starting lineup,” said Hart when asked why he kept the news from his team. “I thought it was better the players don’t go in the game thinking, 'Let’s just kind of go helter-skelter and try to score a lot of goals,' because in my experience that’s when you make the most mistakes as a team.”
Despite playing with no re-enforcements on the bench the Cubans just about kept the Canadians to a single goal before a quick pair near the end, but their play certainly earned the respect of the Canadian players.
“To be fair they worked hard,” veteran Canadian defender Ante Jazic said. “No subs—I’ve never seen that before. Towards the end they were milking the clock, but they put in a decent shift. We should have killed that game a lot earlier.”
Two of MLS' three Cuban players, Osvaldo Alonso (above) and Yordany Álvarez, both defected; Alonso is now a US citizen. Eduardo Sebrango, of the Montreal Impact, is a naturalized Canadian citizen.