NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In the United States' dominant 6-0 victory in their opening match of Olympic qualifying on Thursday night, Cuba managed zero goals on four shots, only one of which forced a save from American goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
For Caleb Porter, that wasn’t good enough.
While the US coach applauded his team's victory, he was critical of the spacing and the defensive effort during the opening 45 minutes, especially from starting midfielders Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud and Jared Jeffrey.
"I thought they were a little soft overall in the first half as a group," he said in the postgame press conference. "Those three guys, I thought, could have been a little bit harder through the middle. We want to win the ball back within six seconds, and I thought [Cuba] had a little bit more of the ball in the first half than we wanted them to."
That assessment sounds harsh, especially considering the midfield trio accounted for three goals, two assists and countless quality interchanges. But the players' rhetoric after the game mirrored that of their coach.
"In the beginning, we were a little sketchy," man of the match Corona said. "We could have come out with a little bit more confidence."
Maybe Porter could have cut his players some slack. They were battling an overmatched foe that went down a man after 19 minutes – they were always going to prevail in that scenario. Isn't asking them to focus on tracking back and winning the ball faster a little much in this type of game?
"It shouldn't be," Diskerud told reporters. "We're professional soccer players, so I agree with [Porter]. The defensive composure should have been there."
The coach and his charges mentioned having some nerves in the beginning, which attributed to the squad's early struggles. The midfield trio and the rest of the American team were much improved in the second half.
Amobi Okugo replaced Jeffrey in the 64th minute after the game was well in hand. The Philadelphia Union midfielder is a more defensive-minded player than the man he took off, and he filled that role well with a few exquisite challenges and some smart distribution.
"My job was to come in late in the game, hold down the fort, make sure everyone in front of me was organized and just keep the ball moving," he said.
Going forward, Okugo will see more time as Porter shuffles a team that will play three games in five days and then take the field in a vital semifinal match on March 31. The Americans will shake off the poor start against Cuba and build going forward, continuing with Saturday's match vs. Canada. The coach is not worried about needed to impress that reality on his players.
"These guys have very high standards,” Porter said. “They know what they are capable of. I've seen it. You saw it for some periods today. We moved the ball quick, and we put together our combination play and accelerated at the right times. It was pretty special.”
As he spoke those words, a small hint of pride crept across his face. But just as quickly, the smile was gone.
"It needs to be more,” he said.