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2015 Gold Cup

U.S. Will Be Huge Favorites Against Depleted Cubans

The odds are stacked against a Cuban national soccer team that has seen at least four players defect and has already been eliminated from the 2018 World Cup. Here's a preview of Saturday's contest. 
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
July 18, 2015
7:25 AM

BALTIMORE—The United States national team knows it will play Cuba here Saturday afternoon (5pm ET; Fox, Univision) in the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup. What they don’t know? Who will be showing up for the Cubans. 

The team representing the Communist Caribbean nation has already seen four of its players defect, leaving with with no more than 19 players on the roster. However, when the national team took its walkthrough Friday evening at M&T Bank Stadium, only 18 players were in uniform and there’s no guarantee more won’t flee before kickoff.

It all makes for a unique circumstance for the U.S. players and coaches, who understand why Cubans would want to defect but also recognize that it doesn’t make for the best sporting situation for those who stick around.

“We know what they are going through on and off the field. So it’s huge admiration for how they have dealt with everything,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said at a press conference Friday evening. “There is a little bit of an unknown because there are constant changes and the very difficult situation they are going through. But the most important thing is to stay focused on our end.”

Even against a full strength Cuban team, the U.S. was always going to be heavily favored. Cuba is one of the few countries in Latin America where futbol takes a back seat, in this case to baseball, and the Cubans have no professional soccer league to speak of.

Such is the state of Cuban soccer that its national side is already eliminated from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup after a pair of draws with Curacao that saw the Dutch protectorate advance on away goals in the embryonic rounds of CONCACAF qualifiers. (Curacao is one of 12 teams that will play in a home-and-home series next month, with the six winners advancing to the semifinal round of qualifying in the fall, when the likes of the U.S. and Mexico will enter the fray.)

And Cuba’s minus-seven goal-differential in the group stage is the worst among any team in Gold Cup history to advance to the knockout stage. Wednesday's miraculous 1-0 win over Guatemala Wednesday in Charlotte saw the team through. And that’s one more area the U.S. has an advantage; the Yanks last played Monday and have had most of the week to recover while Cuba played Wednesday night and had to travel Thursday.  

Recent history adds to the reasons why the home team is so heavily favored. Since the start of MLS, these two teams have met six times, all U.S. wins, with an aggregate score of 19-3. That said, in the group stage of the 2002 Gold Cup, the U.S. needed a goal by Brian McBride to escape with a 1-0 win at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. In in a 2008 World Cup qualifier, Clint Dempsey scored the only goal in Havana.

The two teams last met in the Gold Cup two years ago in Sandy, Utah, and Cuba actually jumped to an early lead after a gaffe by American left back Edgar Castillo but gave up a goal just before the half and eventually faded in a 4-1 U.S. win.

“We're not taking anything lightly there tomorrow night,” Klinsmann said. “We're going to give it full focus, full concentration and the players have to get the job done."

While the Cuban roster starters are unknown, the U.S. starters are a bit more predictable. Veteran DaMarcus Beasley, who joined the team this week, is expected to start at left back.

“Beas didn’t come here to sit,” Klinsmann said, while Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream are the likely center backs. (John Brooks is suspened for the contest.)

One of the biggest question marks is what Klinsmann will do with versatile Fabian Johnson, who has played left back all three Gold Cup games but is now free to play elsewhere with Beasley on board.

Johnson could start at right back for the erratic Timothy Chandler, especially since Chandler has a history of fading in extreme heat and the temperatures are expected to be in the mid 90s Saturday afternoon. 

Or Johnson could start as one of the wide midfielders. Regardless of who the flanks are, sources close to the team confirmed Maryland native Kyle Beckerman will start at holding midfield in his home state, freeing captain Michael Bradley to play a more advanced midfield role. Alejandro Bedoya, coming off a strong showing against Panama, should start as one of the wide midfielders.

Clint Dempsey, who has three goals in this tournament and has scored twice previously against Cuba, is expected to partner with Aron Johannsson at forward.

While they likely won’t start, look for Klinsmann to try and blood Joe Corona and Alan Gordon against Cuba. Like Beasley, the two were roster additions after the group stage and Klinsmann has made a habit of using all his players so that they are battle-tested if needed later on.

The U.S. is currently riding an eight-game unbeaten streak ans has never lost a Gold Cup quarterfinal to a CONCACAF team. The only time it was eliminated in this stage was in 2000 when it fell to guest-country Colombia on penalty kicks in Miami.

Despite their current 6-0-2 run, the Americans didn’t play particularly well in the group stage of this tournament, grinding out wins over Honduras and Haiti before rallying to tie Panama. Still, the ever-optimistic Klinsmann thinks his side is still the favorite to lift the Gold Cup trophy next week in Philadelphia.

"I think we're definitely the team to beat in this tournament," Klinsmann said. "It was not perfect the way we went through the group stage, but it was impressive the way the players handled everything.

"And seeing all the other results, the up and downs the other teams had, I think we're very consistent in what we're doing."

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter. 

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