Cuban national team remain shrouded in mystery on eve of friendly vs. USA

Estadio Pedro Marrero - scoreboard - Havana

HAVANA -- Much of Cuba’s current national soccer team – like the rest of the country itself – hovers like a huge question mark to Americans. Adding to that, the Cuban Football Federation has yet to release an official final roster for Friday’s historic friendly between the island country and the US (4 pm ET, ESPN2/UniMás). (The official state newspaper Granma, as well as other fan blogs, have released a few names, however.)

As such, a press conference on Thursday at the Estadio Pedro Marrero offered a tiny glimpse into the team’s program, even if details remained sparse, and very few athlete names mentioned would be recognizable to even hardcore CONCACAF trackers. So here’s what we do know, after a brief, press conference with Cuban national team head coach Raul Mederos, at which was the only English-language media outlet.

First, Mederos hopes to put the team’s absolute best foot forward for the Cuban people, though he recognizes and respects the USMNT's relative soccer might. “We have great expectations for this game. It’s really hard work, and we hope everyone does their best,” he said.

“The teams are very different from a sporting point of view,” he continued. “The US are on their way to the Hex, and, in my opinion, are one of the two best teams in CONCACAF. They have a very good national league, as well as players from all over.”

But whatever you might remember from Cuba’s last turn in international competition, in particular last year’s Gold Cup, Mederos says he’s been working hard to change course.

“Overall, we want our fans to see a style of play different from before,” he said. “Our philosophy is that we’ll have some younger players alongside more established ones.”

While he declined to name an entire roster, he said fans could reasonably expect – “in the case that all goes well and nothing happens” – goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez, as well as other players like Jose Piedra and Yasmani Lopez.

One player with a slightly higher international profile will also be joining the squad – Maykel Reyes, the lone Cuban national team member to play abroad, in the lower divisions of the Cruz Azul organization in Mexico. However, he was unable to make it to Havana in time to train with the squad, and was set to arrive on the island Thursday evening.

“We’ve had a lot of communication with him, even though it’s lamentable that he didn’t make it to practice,” Mederos said. “We’ll see tonight and tomorrow how it comes together.”

In fact, most of the team’s strategy seemed to be built around Reyes; the Cuban journalists present indicated he likes to play as a No. 10. “If he wants to play as a No. 10, we’ll push forward, and if not, we’ll hang back,” Mederos said. “We’ll work around it.”

The overall strategy, though, will focus on defense, he said. “We’re going to set up a solid defense,” Mederos said, “and from there, proceed with the counterattack.”

Whatever the actual scoreline, though, Mederos -- like his counterpart, Jurgen Klinsmann – looked forward to the larger implications of the match.

“We haven’t played against each other here since 2008,” he said, “and it’s really good for sports, and also in every sentiment – not just for us, but for them too.”