Here's What to Look For As U.S. Men Take on Cuba
October 06, 2016
AT LEAST ON PAPER, the United States should have little trouble with Cuba on Friday (4pm ET, ESPN2, UniMas).
In the latest FIFA rankings, 116 spaces separate the No. 22-ranked American side from Cuba, currently slotted in the 138th spot. But that only tells part of the story because the subpar conditions in CONCACAF road games are never easy and the rocky political history between the two countries should only add intensity to what would normally be a dull friendly.
This is very good news for Jurgen Klinsmann and his squad, who will get yet another stern reminder of how ugly the beautiful game can be in this part of the world. Most high-level Yanks play in pristine conditions—in top-league European stadiums or in the growing number of impressive soccer-specific stadiums in MLS. But when the U.S. has to play away games in CONCACAF, conditions are rarely top-notch and games are often reduced to a quagmire.
Because of this, the game against Cuba will probably be ugly but it will be useful preparation for the Yanks as they prepare for the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying, which begins next month. Over the next 11 months, the U.S. will face difficult and hostile road games in Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, and Mexico.
Here' s what I'll be looking for on Friday.
Can the U.S. get off to a strong start?
Cuba is awful, having won just one out of its last seven games. The only goals it has scored in that span came in a 2-1 win over Bermuda. In the other six games it has been outscored 21-0, including a 3-0 loss to French Guyana in March—it's most recent contest
Cuba will be motivated in this game but the only thing it has going for it against the United States is an enthusiastic crowd and poor field conditions—which has a way of neutralizing a talent advantage.
The first 10-20 minutes will be important for the United States to not allow Cuba to hang in the game longer than it should. If the United States can jump out to an early lead, it should result in a very easy afternoon.
Set pieces will be pivotal
With Cuba likely to bunker, set pieces could be a deciding factor. The U.S. has players that can deliver solid corner kicks—Sacha Kljestan is among the best this season in MLS and this could be a great occasion to prove his worth to Jurgen Klinsmann. Michael Bradley can also be dangerous at times.
While Jozy Altidore and Jordan Morris can get on the end of these deliveries, Cuba will have a tough time marking American central defenders who are all offensive threats on set pieces. Steve Birnbaum and Omar Gonzalez are both very good in the air while likely starters John Brooks and Geoff Cameron will also benefit from a height advantage.
Set pieces will offer Cuba, like any steep underdog, rare chances to get the ball into dangerous positions. In handling these types of games, the ability to consistently defend free kicks is crucial.
Debuts await Gooch and Horvath
Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath and midfielder Lynden Gooch will likely receive their first caps in Havana.
For Horvath, getting the inside track for the No. 3 goalkeeping spot is important because Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are both in the twilight of their respective careers. It is no small feat that he has secured the starting job at Molde at a young age but at this moment he is just one of many Americans vying to be the next in line for the U.S. behind Howard and Guzan. It's going to be an interesting competition.
For Gooch, it will be very interesting to see how Klinsmann uses the California native, who is very versatile and can play all across the midfield and even up top. Expect Gooch to see action on the wings, which would make for three very young outside midfielders on the roster: Gooch, Paul Arriola, and Christian Pulisic.
Can Arriola be the X-factor?
While he is not a lock starter for Liga MX-leading Club Tijuana, Paul Arriola has performed very well in his first two games with the senior side, scoring two goals and registering an assist. Like he did with the U.S. U-20 team, Arriola has raised his game on the international stage and has been a welcome source of energy.
This roster is still missing some top U.S. players there is competition to be part of the World Cup qualifiers ahead. So it will be interesting to see if Arriola can continue to be a sparkplug off the bench and force his way onto the team. If he intends to become a regular invitee, he needs to take advantage of opportunities like this one.
Danny Williams vs. Perry Kitchen
It's rare that both Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones are not part of a U.S. roster on a FIFA international date. But that should open door for their eventual predecessor(s). Either, or both, need to make a claim to play alongside Bradley as veterans begin to age out.
Williams, 27, has had many chances with U.S. dating back to October 2011 but has always drifted in and out of the team, unable to seize his chances. Kitchen, 24, only has four caps but is full of confidence after being named the captain of Scottish club Hearts.
Expectations rising for Morris
In his first year with the national team, Jordan Morris was just a college kid and expectations were modest—so anything he accomplished seemed impressive. But now Morris is an established Major League Soccer striker who is enjoying a great rookie season. He has improved steadily and has stepped up to fill the void left by an ailing Clint Dempsey, playing a pivotal role as the Seattle Sounders push toward the postseason.
Morris likely won't start ahead of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood but there is a clear opening for him to secure a bigger role on the team. And with two injury-prone strikers—Altidore and Aron Johannsson—of the opportunity ahead of him in the pecking order, Morris will be fully aware of what's at stake.
The Sounders have a massive midweek game on October 12, so it wouldn't come as a shock to see Morris returning to his club after Friday. The Cuba contest might be his only chance to put on a show. He'd better deliver.
I predict the United States wins 2-0 and I think that Klinsmann will send out this Starting XI.
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