5 Things for the United States to Fear from Cuba in the Gold Cup
Unsurprisingly, the United States start as red-hot favourites to record a second Gold Cup win against Cuba on July 13.
The home side waltzed to victory in their first appearance at CONCACAF's continental competition. A hat-trick from Chris Wondolowski helped the U.S. to an easy 6-1 destruction of Belize, giving them the perfect start to the competition.
Cuba, meanwhile, were disappointing in going down 3-0 to Costa Rica. They know another reverse would make it very difficult to pursue their dreams of making it out of the first round.
Still, anything can happen during 90 minutes of football. Here is why maybe, just maybe, Cuba could threaten an upset on Saturday.
Experience and Star Quality
While a few of the United States idols were picked for the Gold Cup—including legends such as Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley—the team can best be described as a mix between starters and reserves.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has left several first-teamers at home to take on the USMNT's continental rivals, while including 10 players with fewer than 10 caps. This is in stark contrast to the approach taken by Cuba.
Head coach Walter Benitez has gone for broke by picking most of the nation's most established players, albeit from the strictly amateur local league. Watch out, for example, for the experience of Yenier Marquez, a holding midfielder with no less than 108 international caps.
They Are Caribbean Champions
That's right, the United States' next opponents are officially the best team in the entire Caribbean region.
After finishing second three times in the Caribbean Cup, the Cubans finally broke their duck during 2012 by lifting the title for the first time. The win also constituted the very first piece of silverware in the nation's 83-year football history.
After starting poorly with a 1-0 defeat to Martinique, the Cubans found their stride and wouldn't lose another game in the tournament. French Guiana, Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago were dispatched in successive matches, meaning the island nation came into the Gold Cup on a roll.
The USA Have Home Pressure
While playing in front of your own fans can provide a boost, it can also add an unwelcome pressure to succeed which often works against the hosts. Cuba will hope to exploit any nerves and try and frustrate the home crowd on Saturday.
With 1.75 million Cuban-Americans living in the U.S., on the other hand, the visiting team may also be able to call on some local support. The location of the game in Utah is hardly convenient for the majority of the Cuban population, which is centred around Florida, but there could well be a few friendly faces inside the Rio Tinto Stadium.
Nobody Has Defected
The title may appear to be a joke, and rather poor taste as well, but it is a constant worry for Cuban teams touring outside that they may come back to their home nation with a few empty spaces on the plane.
Yosniel Mesa is one example. The midfielder climbed down the fire escape of the team hotel during the 2011 edition of the Gold Cup, and he drove to Miami to claim political asylum. In 2008, meanwhile, no fewer than eight members of the Cuba team defected while visiting the U.S. for an Olympic Games qualifier.
So far at least, however, the team remains intact and with no deserters, which can only be a positive sign.
They Have Nothing to Lose
Winning on Saturday means everything for the Cuban national team. They have won just one fixture in their Gold Cup history, against Canada, while drawing twice and losing no fewer than 14 of their 17 run-outs in the competition.
Add to that unenviable record the historical tension between Cuba and the U.S., and you have more than enough reason to believe that the Caribbean nation will come out fighting from the first whistle to the last.
There is an obvious gulf in quality between the USMNT and Cuba. But the hosts should be careful. There is an optimism surrounding their opponent's football right now, and they are hungry for an upset away from home.