With a hurricane bearing down on Florida and the Caribbean, the United States is set to play its first friendly against Cuba since 1947. The men’s team will be looking for chemistry and to tie up as many loose ends as possible in the first of two easy friendlies staged a month before the beginning of the final Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Of course, those stakes most likely match up with the game itself. The last time the United States played Cuba, they thrashed them 6-0 in 2015’s edition of the Gold Cup. You might recall how un-noteworthy the U.S. played in that tournament, and if you think that 6-0 scoreline might just attest to how poor Cuba’s team was, you would be making a safe assumption. I was at that game, and can give eyewitness testimony that the Cuban defense made Gyasi Zardes look like Cristiano Ronaldo. So any and all conclusions drawn from this game will need to be taken with plenty of salt.
L (0-3) - French Guyana - Caribbean Cup
W (2-1) - Bermuda - Caribbean Cup
L (0-4) - Panama - Copa America Qualification
L (0-2) - Honduras - Friendly
L (0-1) - Nicaragua - Friendly
W (4-0) - Trinidad & Tobago - WCQ
W (6-0) - St. Vincent & the Grenadines - WCQ
L (0-1) - Colombia - Copa America
L (0-4) - Argentina - Copa America
W (2-1) - Ecuador - Copa America
What to Watch for:
Chemistry 101 - The more a team plays together, the better it tends to play. Players build chemistry and start to instinctively understand the habits and play style of their teammates. When you don’t have to think about where the ball is going, and instead just know a teammate will be in a certain spot, that half a second advantage can create havoc for an opposing team. It’s not rocket science. Klinsmann called in a nearly full-strength roster for two friendlies against teams that are closer to 100 (...or 150) than they are to number 1 in FIFA rankings. He’s most likely not going to go crazy with his lineup experimentation. He’s looking to build chemistry. November isn’t far away, and every minute of game time helps that grow.
Wildcards - There are, however, a couple players with this team that raise some questions. Chief among them is Lynden Gooch. The 20-year-old initially impressed with Sunderland, showing plenty of energy in the midfield, before seeing his playing time drop off. Gooch was snubbed for 2015’s U-20 World Cup, but he was also played almost exclusively as a forward under Tab Ramos, and got stuck behind Rubio Rubin and Maki Tall up top. With Sunderland, Gooch has shown impressive utility throughout the midfield, and Gooch has made it into senior camp ahead of the vast majority of those on that U-20 World Cup squad. Perry Kitchen and Danny Williams will also need impressive camps if they’re going to break into the U.S. first choice selection for the Hex. They’ve been hanging around the fringes for long enough, and Kyle Beckerman is 34. The U.S. needs a new, younger defensive specialist in the midfield. One month away from the Hex, these two have open auditions.
Make it Home - Hurricane Matthew landed in Cuba on Tuesday, and even before that the pitch at Estadio Pedro Marrero looked like this:
Say a prayer to the patron saint of ankles that all of ours make it home.
If you call in full strength, you go full strength.
I think Klinsmann uses as close to the same lineup he used against Trinidad & Tobago as he can get. Tim Howard and Brad Guzan remain with their clubs, and Horvath has been the third keeper for the last two U.S. camps running. It’s a good time to get him senior action. Paul Arriola steps in for Alejandro Bedoya, which is actually a very good fit overall. Arriola brings a very similar work-rate and willingness to mix things up in defense, and has his moments of flair in attack. If Klinsmann puts this lineup out on Friday, I expect a 3-0 win for the U.S. at the very least.