After opening Gold Cup play with a dominant win, marred only by poor defending on a set piece goal, the U.S. Men’s National Team will be looking to solidify their place atop Group C when they face Cuba on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The Cubans lost their opener to a below-par Costa Rica, 3–0.
Costa Rica put three goals past Cuba, and could have scored more if they’d been more clinical. The Cubans were effortful but lacked organization, and rarely threatened Los Ticos. They do not look like a side with much hope of making the knockout stages.
That said, Cuba has beaten the U.S. before, 5–2. It just happened to be way back in 1947. They met again, in 1949, and tied, 1–1. Since then, the two sides have played seven times, and the U.S. has won every meeting, the last one another 6–1, in a World Cup qualifier in 2008. Three players on the current US Gold Cup squad scored in that game: DaMarcus Beasley bagged a brace with Landon Donovan and Oguchi Oneywu both scoring a goal a piece.
Cuba boasts no players that play professionally outside of Cuba, and the biggest buzz about the game so far has been whether any members of the Cuban team will defect.
What that all adds up to is that Saturday’s game is much more about what the U.S. does than what Cuba does.
What will the U.S. do?
Defensive shape: The first thing the U.S. needs to stress is defensive shape and marking responsibilities. Keeping a clean sheet is a must. As Belize proved, even mediocre sides can score off set pieces if you give them time and space. Michael Parkhurst got an assist shortly after letting his man have a free header, but that shouldn’t distract him from the fact that his first responsibility is to defend. The U.S. has plenty of players that can chip in offensively without him forgetting what he, or any of the other defenders, is on the field to do.
Kyle conundrum: In the last two games, Kyle Beckerman has started in central midfield, shielding the back four. And in both games, the U.S. has played too slowly with him on the field, he’s been subbed at the half, and the U.S.’s play has sped up and become more incisive. That said, none of the midfield replacements, Stuart Holden in particular, have the same sort of defensive discipline as Beckerman, something that may well be needed later in the tournament against better attacking sides. While many fans would like to see Holden get a start next to Mix Diskerud on Saturday, Jurgen Klinsmann is likely to make it one or the other, in the hopes that Beckerman can do more offensively, rather than relying on more offensively-minded players learning to play defense.
Last chance for Jack: The Cuba game may represent Jack McInerney’s last best chance of getting on the field. With only three subs to work with, Klinsmann can’t hand out charity minutes unless a game is well in hand. Cuba, while better than Belize, will still pose the least challenge of any further opponents the tourney will produce, so assuming the rest of the games are tenser affairs, Saturday might be it for Jack. Klinsmann and the rest of the team have spoken highly about McInerney, but nothing that makes one think he is knocking down the door for playing time. With Herculez Gomez and a suddenly prolific Chris Wondolowski in front of him, McInerney will have to be patient. Of course, anything can happen in tournament soccer, and an injury or poor performance might open the door for the young, hungry striker.
Follow Donovan’s lead: Donovan is clearly up for this tournament. Getting left off the roster for the most recent round of World Cup Qualifiers—and then watching his fellows succeed without him—has seemingly lit a fire under him, and he’s playing with passion and energy. And when Donovan’s on and interested, the U.S. is capable of a different level of attacking soccer. Getting him the ball in good positions will both allow him to do good things with the ball at his feet, and open up the field for the rest of the U.S. squad as Cuba’s defense keys on him.
Anything Costa Rica can do, the U.S. can do better: 4–0 to the United States. The biggest danger for the U.S. in this game is complacency, but having given up a bad goal to Belize, and with a roster full of hungry players like Donovan, Holden, and Diskerud, a let-down seems unlikely. The U.S. will try to jump on the Cubans early, and earn another stylish, dominant win.