It’s looking more and more like something special is going on with the U-23 US Men’s National Team. Led by a prodigy-turned-elder-statesman, a team of prodigious talent is turning in to the most exciting group of players to come through the American system in a long time.
It took eleven minutes of poking and prodding for the U.S. to take the lead over Cuba on Nashville’s LP Field. It was a deserved goal, and a pretty one at that. But it would be far from the prettiest on a night when the Americans beat the helpless Cuban defense six times in total.
Joe Corona’s opening strike came courtesy of a curling 45-yard free kick off the foot of Freddy Adu. After Kofi Sarkodie’s aerial aggression earned the U.S. a dead ball opportunity, Adu’s effort dropped in front of Cuban goalie Odisnel Cooper. His tame punch was controlled on the chest by Corona and netted with a measured finish.
The Macias Elbow
The Americans were dominant in both possession and chances even before Cuba lost Dairo Macias to a straight red card in the 19th minute. The defender was chasing a loose ball with Juan Agudelo when his elbow crashed into the striker’s face. Or, as the not-at-all biased USSoccer.com describes it, “Macias inflicted two blows to the face of Agudelo. As the U.S. striker turned up the right side of the field inside his own half with Macias in tow, both were chasing a ball and arm battling. Agudelo tugged Macias first, who then responded with a slap across Agudelo’s face with his left hand and then a straight elbow to Agudelo’s jaw with his right.” Let me temper that statement by saying that this was far from the most blatant red card you’ll see in a year of soccer, but as soon as the elbow connected, it’s owner was on a collision course with the Dark Lord of Early Showers.
If the U.S. team felt in control before Cuba went down a man, they let it show after Macias trudged off the pitch. Passes in the back were loose, slow and wild; the midfield was looking for the killer ball instead of build up, and Bill Hamid was forced to wake from his slumber to watch a 21-yard free kick sail over his bar.
In the 25th minute, the tempo began to pick up. Mix Diskerud’s errant pass was deflected into the American defensive lines. Ike Opara beat Blanco to the ball and played a spectacular first time laser into Diskerud’s feet. The midfielder turned and hit Joe Corona at the top of the box, and he slid in Brek Shea through the right channel. Shea tried a slide-rule pass to Agudelo at the back post for a tap-in but the sliding leg of a Cuban defender preserved the 1-0 scoreline.
The lead Agudoubles
It would not last. Frankly, it could not last under the intense pressure applied by Brek Shea. Off a deep free kick in the 37th, Shea found space on the left and drilled a cross Beckham would have worshipped into the box for Agudelo power home. In a moment that spoke to the freewheeling nature of their dynamic partnership, Agudelo celebrated by air-lassoing Shea as the provider lay on the turf.
Corona and Shea, the end of Cuba’s day
Joe Corona put the game out of reach three minutes later when he used his shin to knock Diskerud’s bouncing pass beyond a sprawling Cooper. The second was hardly in the same class as Corona’s first, but it counted the same.
Three more minutes and the US was back for more. Shea again turned his man on the left before underhitting a low cross to Agudelo. Cuban defender Arturo Diz Pe tried to intercept the pass but only managed to bundle it into his own net. Agudelo, clearly wanting to match Corona’s brace, put his face in his hands before giving Shea a high five.
The Brek and Freddy show
With the Americans up four, Teal Bunbury replaced Agudelo at the half. Moments later, he was in on goal when Freddy Adu did his Roger Torres impression and neatly dropped a lofted ball behind the defense. Bunbury held off two Cubans but could not slide his finish beyond Cooper, who injured his shoulder and/or leg on the play.
Adu showed up in bursts during he first half, but he and Shea simply owned the second. Both took the liberty to drift inside, bring their respective fullbacks into play, build triangles on the edges, and find gaps through the middle. With Adu and Shea on the move, the United States essentially had three lines of offense operating at different depths in the Cuban half. Even with the visitors packed in, the short passes and quick movement of the Americans turned the match into a game of keep away.
Caleb Porter did Cuba a favor by pulling off Brek Shea in the 57th, though Joe Gyau joined as a lively force down the left. Gyau’s first real involvement came a few minutes later when he did a trademark outside cut that left his defender stranded. A low cross found Diskerud ten yards out but Cooper got down fast to keep the score somewhat respectable.
Unfortunately for Cuba, Freddy Adu had other ideas. After skying a few efforts, Adu was slowly finding his range when, in the 62nd minute, he locked in. Twenty yards straight out, Adu’s first touch was poor, but he turned his body around the bouncing ball and delivered a first class package into the right corner of the net. It was what classy people call a classy finish.
Union fans were in for a treat when Amobi Okugo entered for Jared Jeffrey a minute later. Okugo had legs and the Cubans did not, he had ten teammates and the Cubans had ten total, but I hope neither of those facts tempered your excitement as Okugo ran the American offense like a seasoned conductor. Pushing Diskerud and Corona forward, the forgotten man in the Union midfield was the hub of a late game passing display that was simply extraordinary. Five goals ahead, the U.S. team did not revert to the sloppiness of their first half lull. They controlled possession and switched fields with a lazy precision that indicated they were beyond caring about the scoreboard and had moved on to a display of feathers, showing the Canadians and El Salvadorians how scary they could be without even seeming to threaten.
Indeed, Corona’s hat trick was an elegant example of how thoroughly the team has mastered Caleb Porter’s possession-dominating style of play. Okugo and Adu set up Diskerud, who played a series of one-twos with Joe Corona, until the Tijuana man simply found himself too close to goal to do anything but shoot. His low strike deflected off a defender and spun into the far side netting.
Corona will take the game ball, but the rest of the Olympic qualifiers will take notice. The US Men’s Soccer Olympic team is doing something special at just the right time.