Friday July 17th, 2015

CATONSVILLE, Md.— There may not be an image or moment that encapsulates the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup more perfectly than the scene late Wednesday in Charlotte. There, at Bank of America Stadium, Trinidad and Tobago’s Joevin Jones—while evading the plastic bottles and cups being thrown his way from the stands—shrugged and delivered a perfect corner kick toward the head of Yohance Marshall, who scored on the last touch of a wild game.

Marshall’s goal lifted Trinidad, which hadn’t survived the Gold Cup’s group stage in 15 years, to a 4-4 draw with powerhouse Mexico and the top spot in Group C. The Soca Warriors are one of four Gold Cup entrants from the Caribbean. All four qualified for the quarterfinals. Neither Mexico nor Costa Rica won its group, while the U.S. was pushed to the limit by Honduras, Haiti and Panama. The five Central American participants went winless.

In short, it’s been mayhem. And that’s just on the field.

“I say this with total endearment: It’s a ridiculous tournament,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said here on Friday morning as the Americans prepared to practice at UMBC.

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“Between the travel, the short turnaround between games, grass being laid over field turf, the weather—it’s a huge challenge,” he said. “That’s absolutely no excuse because it’s the same for everybody. It’s not like it’s any different for us than it is the other teams. I want to be clear on that. That’s no excuse. That’s not me complaining. That’s just reality. You see every game is a dogfight. Every game is close and hard and it’s exactly what we expected.”

The favored U.S. started its Gold Cup defense in sweltering Frisco, Texas, played three days later on temporary grass in Foxborough, Massachusetts, flew west to Kansas City, Kansas, then traveled back to Baltimore on Tuesday. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann used 21 of his 23 players during the week-long group stage, then called in three replacements (the other seven quarterfinalists brought in a combined four new players). Only Bradley and goalkeeper Brad Guzan started all three games.

Klinsmann and Co. have had a chance to review and recalibrate here in Maryland.

“It was key for us to kind of get a mental and physical rest and recover and think things through,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said.

But no one is expecting the Gold Cup to suddenly become sane. On paper, the U.S. (2-0-1) could not have an easier path to the final. It meets Cuba (1-2-0) in Saturday’s quarterfinal at M&T Bank Stadium and then would have to handle either Jamaica or Haiti in the semis next Wednesday. This is, by and large, uncharted territory for Caribbean teams. Only four of the combined 48 Gold Cup semifinalists have come from the islands, and Cuba might very well be the most underwhelming quarterfinalist in tournament history.

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Wracked by visa issues and defections—U.S. Soccer believes that as many as five members of the Cuban team won’t be available this weekend—Los Leones enter the knockout rounds with a -7 goal differential from three first-round games. This is a team that was eliminated from 2018 World Cup qualifying by Curaçao and lost, 4-1, to the NASL’s New York Cosmos last month. As usual, none of its members plays abroad.

But Maikel Reyes’ second-half goal—Cuba’s first of the tournament—was enough to upset a moribund Guatemala side, 1-0, on Wednesday and secure the final berth in the round of eight. Now, the U.S. and Cuba are on level terms, and the favorites aren’t expecting the challenges or the weirdness to stop now just because the opponents are less fearsome or because the games mean more.

“It’s so unpredictable, soccer in general, but even so now in CONCACAF, teams have gotten a lot stronger. These nations have progressed,” said Bedoya, who played well in his first Gold Cup appearance Monday against Panama. “That’s not a knock on us or Mexico or Costa Rica or anything. It’s just a matter of fact. These countries have gotten better and aren’t easy to play against anymore.”

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Bedoya reminded everyone of the 41st-minute play against Panama. He was running onto a perfect lofted pass from Chris Wondolowski and appeared to be in on goal, only to be brought down from behind by Harold Cummings on the edge of the Panamanian penalty area. There was no whistle.

“[Referees] are human too and they make mistakes. But I also think CONCACAF has had that notion that they’re pretty well known for, I guess, being a bit biased or whatever it is … It makes CONCACAF a little more interesting,” Bedoya said. “We have to be on our toes. One bad call goes against us, [it’s] 1-0, and they bunker and it’s hard to break them down, and there you go.”

Said Bradley, “It’ll be on us to push the tempo, to be sharper, to play forward and to try to ge the first goal quickly. There’s no secret that in these games, if you can get the first goal quickly, it doesn’t guarantee anything but it goes a long way in terms of breaking the game open.”

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The U.S. is 8-1-1 all-time against Cuba. The tie and loss came back in the 1940s, and the Americans won easily, 4-1, at the 2013 Gold Cup. Whatever struggles the U.S. may have had during the Gold Cup group stage establishing possession or rhythm—however hairy things might have become along an evolving back line or in a midfield that wasn’t fully in synch—the gap in talent and experience should be more than enough to ensure a comfortable victory on Saturday.

But after two weeks of mayhem, the Americans have little choice but to remain wary. They may even have to improve. Like its Caribbean counterparts, Cuba could rise to the occasion.

“Haiti was the unknown team in [our] group and as you see, they advanced out of our group and they gave teams trouble. They gave us trouble with their speed on the counter, things like that. These games aren’t going to be easy. None of them are,” Bedoya said. “We’ve just got to make sure we do things better, are sharper on the ball, maybe not give cheap turnovers because these teams are going to defend and try to hit us on the counter.”

When asked if he expects the hardship and unpredictability to continue, Bradley said, “Expect that it becomes even more like that … Everything you’ve done up until this point means nothing and everything than you’ll do in the next week means everything. So we’re, again, very focused and very excited to step on the field tomorrow. It’s a quarterfinal. We expect a great crowd. We’ll be ready to do anything, anyway, to get ourselves into the semifinal.”

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