Three Things: How the US survived a chaotic Caribbean caper in Cuba

Copa America - John Brooks

As far as we knew at the time of the final whistle, the US national team escaped Friday's friendly in Cuba with life and limb mostly intact.

They even won the thing 2-0, despite a few scary challenges on young jewel Christian Pulisic and the high boot that bloodied Steve Birnbaum's face without drawing so much as a foul call from whistle-swallowing Panamanian referee Jafeth Perea, much less the red card that it warranted.

If I were truly committed to writing with pith and brevity, I would wrap this column up right here, because so very much about this game deserves to be crumpled up and tossed into the recycling bin of history. But the Three Things show must go on, and so shall I.

Who's your mudder?

As was uttered approximately infinity times on “Soccer Twitter” and the ESPN broadcast, this game was irrevocably marred by the bovine grazing pasture that passed for a pitch at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana. The patchy, unkempt surface required extra concentration on every touch and sabotaged many promising US moves, with the visitors clearly far less comfortable on it than the hosts.

That said: This is CONCACAF. This stuff happens. Every pitch can't be like the manicured golf greens of Europe's top-tier leagues. And these players have generally been drilled for years on the importance of filtering out distractions – which includes anything outside their own direct control – and focusing on the work at hand. Clearly, that was harder for some US players than others.

The usually composed John Brooks was obviously flustered by the odd bounces, and by halftime had slipped into an untoward habit of lumping the ball into touch whenever it did anything unpredictable. Conversely, Julian Green was comfortable enough out on the left flank to get on the ball and slalom into the Cuban penalty box repeatedly, a promising sign of his adaptability even if many of his ideas didn't quite come off.

Some of us are finely-tuned coupes that crave smooth blacktop. Others are mudders who can handle the dirt track just fine. The USMNT require both, especially when navigating CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

Hasta La Wondo Siempre?

No one caught the sloppy drift of this one faster than Chris Wondolowski. The San Jose Earthquakes' much-maligned international came off the bench and scored the opener on a rebound before teeing up Green for a tap-in to save US blushes. 

If you were wondering why he still gets called by Jurgen Klinsmann – and many do, loudly – Friday's game is a case study. Wondo's limits against the world's elite were laid bare some time ago, but that's not what every US game or camp is all about. 

Every coach he's ever had will laud the veteran striker's work ethic and selfless ethos, and Klinsmann has clearly grown to appreciate the consistency Wondo brings in a position that is all too often wracked by injury and inconsistency for the Yanks. 

Yes, he's probably bolstered his odds of getting another call-up for next month's Hexagonal openers. It's fair to ask whether his place on the roster would be put to better use on younger options with future upside. But when the going gets tough – and it probably will against Mexico and Costa Rica – Klinsmann the pragmatist likes to have a scrapper close at hand.

You sure about that 4-4-2?

Speaking of pragmatism: The USMNT's recurring reversion to a bog-standard 4-4-2 makes sense in light of American players' built-in familiarity with it and the limited windows the coaching staff has for implementing tactical wrinkles. But its flaws were exposed at times by a lively but limited Cuba side.

With the Jozy Altidore-Bobby Wood strike duo still groping for real chemistry, the US only applied haphazard pressure up front as Los Leones del Caribe built their attacks. That often led to big gaps in the midfield spaces in front of center mids Sacha Kljestan and Michael Bradley, who have not played together enough to know who would step where at speed.

That in turn left the back four – who were playing a very high line for most of the game – at real risk when Cuba played balls into space and/or slipped through the offside trap. An otherwise experienced defensive group got jittery in a hurry, and had goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, and the woodwork, to thank for a clean sheet that masked their inadequacies on the day.

With two true wide men in the form of Green and Pulisic, the US got spread into two or three flat, easily-bypassed lines too often – both in transition and when they got numbers behind the ball. It's a big reason the 4-2-3-1 has surpassed the 4-4-2 as the general global default in recent years.

The video of this one should give Klinsmann and his staff pause as they consider the speed, technique and intelligence next month's adversaries can use to attack holes in the USMNT's shape. But for now, we should all accept Friday for what it is: A sporting commemoration of defused tensions with our island neighbors, flaws, silliness and all...