U.S. expects hostile reception in Cuba
When Cuba opened the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying on Aug. 20 against Trinidad and Tobago, only 4,000 fans bothered to tear themselves away from the Olympics to watch the home side fall, 3-1. The atmosphere was far from intimidating, but chances are that a very different kind of environment awaits the United States when they take on Cuba this Saturday in Havana.
Given the longtime animosity between their respective governments, there is always an extra edge when the U.S. and Cuba square off. The countries normally compete in the Olympics, with baseball fields, volleyball courts, and boxing rings the usual venues for such encounters. That Saturday's contest is in soccer calls into question just how much enmity there will be, especially since there have been only two occasions since 1947 that a U.S. soccer team has made its way to the island nation just 90 miles off the Florida coast. The latter occasion came in 1991, when a U.S. squad including Brad Friedel and Claudio Reyna led the Americans to the gold medal at that year's Pan American Games.
"I think because we haven't been there in so long, everyone is a little unsure about the reception," said U.S. midfielder Eddie Lewis. "I think in a lot of ways we're expecting a good one, but it is a World Cup qualifier and there will certainly be an added level of intensity, not only for the game, but for the crowd and everything surrounding the game."
Of course, the Yanks' opening match in Guatemala two weeks ago could serve as a blueprint for what road qualifiers are like. On that occasion, the U.S. had to play through the home crowd's hostilities, and the accompanying on-field gamesmanship that went with it. The Americans didn't always cope well with the intimidating environment, as evidenced by Steve Cherundolo's foolish second caution for grabbing the ankle of Guatemala attacker Fredy Garcia. But the Americans eventually prevailed 1-0, and in the process were reacquainted with the unpredictability of life on the road in CONCACAF.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Cuba
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic
U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
"I think a lot of guys had forgotten just how intense those qualifiers can get," said Lewis. "Sometimes, the focus tends to shift away from the actual game, and it turns into a bit of a [battle]."
With the U.S. squad suitably desensitized by its trip to Guatemala, the Cuban crowd should not be a big factor Saturday. If the Americans manage to win on Saturday, they will set a record with their third consecutive road qualifying victory. But of more immediate importance to the team is that a win would allow them to put their stamp on their group, and were they to follow up Saturday's effort with another victory the following Wednesday against T&T, the Americans could find themselves coasting into the final round of qualifying.
Given the defections the Cuban team has suffered in recent years, achieving such a goal will be easier than it might have otherwise been for the Americans. No fewer than 12 players have defected to the U.S. since 2002, with Chivas USA forward Maykel Galindo the most notable.
Cuba isn't completely devoid of attacking players. Forward Roberto Linares, who scored in a 1-1 tie against the U.S. during Olympic qualifying last March, proved a handful against T&T, as did midfielder Jensy Munoz.
The defections have had a bigger impact on defense, where the losses of Yenier Bermudez and Yendry Diaz have cut deep. Former MLS veteran and current T&T international Cornell Glen had his way with the Cuban defense two weeks ago, and one would expect that players like Brian Ching and Clint Dempsey will have more success against Cuba than they did against Guatemala.
Such an outcome is far from guaranteed, however. Much has been made about how the U.S. forwards have struggled in 2008. Aside from the 8-0 demolition of Barbados last June, Jozy Altidore is the only forward to have scored from open play this year. But for Lewis, the relative dearth of goals from U.S. forwards is indicative of a deeper problem.
"I think there'll be a bigger responsibility on the front six to not only get the strikers better service, but get them more service as well," said Lewis. "In a lot of ways it has been quite difficult on them because I don't think they've had as many good looks as they'd like, and that doesn't just fall on them. We need to do a better job in the midfield of getting up into the other team's half for longer periods."
Aiding the Americans' cause is that Cuba has already lost one game at home, and their sense of self-belief will likely be fragile. There also figures to be an air of desperation about their play, since another home defeat would almost certainly spell doom for their qualifying campaign.
"Certainly some sort of result for them is crucial," added Lewis. "And in some ways that plays into our hands. If we're able to get on top of them early, establish ourselves, and maybe get an early goal they'll probably start to suffer from the lack of confidence they maybe had in the last game, and that can work to our advantage."
And help the Americans take their next step on the road to South Africa.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.