SANDY, Utah – For a team that the United States has faced five times in the last decade, Cuba still remain a relentlessly mysterious opponent.
Though a handful of experienced players remain from prior matchups, the loss of star players – including the likes of Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso, Real Salt Lake’s Yordany Alvarez and former Chivas USA striker Maykel Galindo – through defection nearly every time the team sets foot on North American soil has exacerbated the amount of turnover for Los Leones del Caribe. And that, coupled with the Caribbean nation’s secrecy, has made scouting them a tricky, but not impossible task.
Donovan, Klinsmann et al on set pieces & beating Cuba
As far as the US is concerned, the secrets they are looking for may lie largely in the Cuban tournament opener against Costa Rica, in which the Ticos were held scoreless for 52 minutes before finding three goals in a 25-minute span in a 3-0 loss.
“In the first half against Costa Rica [Cuba] showed really good qualities,” US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann told reporters at a press conference on Friday. “We are well aware of them and their strengths.”
After cruising to a 6-1 win against another lesser-known regional minnow in Belize, Klinsmann saw some similarities in both how Cuba and his own team would approach the match.
“It’s like Belize – it is a situation for us where we can only lose. If you win this is what everybody expects,” the coach explained, “It demands a lot of focus from these guys, it demands a high tempo from the beginning.
“We expect a difficult game against Cuba. It’s a side that want to show off, they want to prove what they have and they have a lot of talent, so it’s going to be a lot of work for us”
Cuba’s record in international play and their strong showing indicate they’re likely to be a step up from Belize, who had not won a single Gold Cup qualifying game until this year and have routinely been one of the first teams eliminated in World Cup qualifying.
“In my opinion it’s a better team than Belize,” Landon Donovan, who jointly holds a US single-game record thanks his four goals against Cuba in a 2003 win, told reporters on Friday. “We know that they need one point from this match at the minimum if they want to qualify for the quarterfinals and we’ll be very prepared for the match, just as with Belize.”
US fans can rest assured, though, that even with Cuba’s strong showings early on, the tables and history are turned squarely on the underdogs. The USMNT is 7-1-1 all-time against Cuba, and 6-0-0 with a goal differential of 25-2 (all in competitive games) since 1998.
History aside, the US are ready to let their own game do the talking.
“We’ve been offensively clicking and defensively we need to get better on some set pieces, but I think we cleared that up, talked about it and just focused on ourselves going into this game,” said goalkeeper Nick Rimando. “Who knows what happens after the fact, but we’ll welcome Cuba here and are looking forward to a good game.”