Let’s hope some good will and good memories were generated by Friday’s friendly between the U.S. and Cuba in Havana, because there certainly wasn’t a lot of good soccer.
Thanks to a field that looked and played like someone spread grass seed over the surface of the moon, the third meeting between the countries on Cuban soil slowed to a relative crawl. Reserve forward Chris Wondolowski had the winning goal and an assist in the Americans’ 2-0 victory, but it wasn’t a game he or his teammates will want to watch again.
Possession was pretty much impossible to maintain, the footing was treacherous and touches were tentative. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann speaks often about adapting and thriving in adverse conditions, and the American starters tried to do so at the Estadio Pedro Marrero mostly by knocking long passes toward striker Jozy Altidore and then hoping to win the second ball. Meanwhile, Cuba occasionally was dangerous on the counter and hit the post twice.
As a test of players’ technique and individual composure, Friday’s game was noteworthy. As preparation for next month’s World Cup qualifiers, it left plenty to be desired. The U.S. now will hope to use next Tuesday’s friendly against New Zealand in Washington, D.C., to focus on combinations and chemistry. RFK Stadium may be more than a half century old, but the field is more than adequate.
Before the U.S. moves on to the nation’s capital, however, here are three thoughts on an ugly, rough and tumble win in Havana:
The surface was the story
According to ESPN, which broadcast the game, Klinsmann was “horrified” by the conditions in Havana. Almost immediately after kickoff, it became apparent that the U.S. wasn’t going to be able to play out of the back as the manager prefers or involve Sacha Kljestan and Christian Pulisic in the attack. Many fans were clamoring to see them start after their performance in last month's qualifiers, but neither was able to make much of an impact on Friday.
Kljestan, playing in front of captain Michael Bradley, often was bypassed when the U.S. had the ball. And Pulisic, deployed on the right wing, struggled with his dribbling and control. His 13th-minute shrug after playing the ball out of bounds set the tone.
The conditions highlighted the strike partnership between Altidore and Bobby Wood, which is crucial because of the absence of veteran Clint Dempsey. Altidore and Wood had combined to score 10 goals in the five games they started together before Friday. And their positioning was decent in Havana. Altidore worked hard to win the ball and bring his teammates into the play. But Wood missed an early chance, Altidore rarely faced the goal and an end-product just wasn’t there when Klinsmann’s first-choice 11 were on the field.
In the end, an uncommon game that featured a ton of turnovers and some poor defensive spacing by both teams was determined by a common metric—one side finished its chances and the other didn’t. The Americans may take some satisfaction from that, but there was little to learn on Friday.
Green and Wondo take advantage
They’re forever associated that round-of-16 loss at the 2014 World Cup. Wondolowski missed his chance, which may have lifted the U.S. to a famous win over Belgium. Green finished his once the match was all but over. They’ve had a bit of a rough go since. Wondolowski’s San Jose Earthquakes haves struggled, and he hasn’t done enough in U.S. colors to placate critics. Meanwhile, Green hasn’t broken through at Bayern Munich and has been left off Klinsmann’s past two tournament rosters.
But they sent a message on Friday, at least as much of a message that could be sent in that environment. Green, starting for the U.S. for the first time since September 2014, was the most proactive American by far. He had a ton of room with which to work—Cuba didn’t do much marking—but he wasn’t fazed by the field and made several threatening runs with the ball. He created his own shots in the first half with some deft dribbling on the left side of the penalty area and forced saves from Cuba goalkeeper Sandy Sánchez. Then in the 62nd minute, Green found space for a long bid that forced an awkward parry by Sánchez. Wondolowski was there to clean up the rebound.
Wondolowski returned the favor in the 71st, running onto a high, looping pass from substitute right back Timmy Chandler, taking a touch and sending a perfect low cross toward Green at the left post. Green’s tap-in was his first goal for the U.S. since that evening in Brazil.
Neither is likely to start against Mexico next month in Columbus. But in less than ideal conditions both served notice that they intend to remain in call-up contention.
A new face behind a familiar back four
Ethan Horvath, 21, somehow became the U.S. national team’s No. 3 goalkeeper without ever playing for the national team. He was on the Copa América Centenario squad and finally made his senior international debut on Friday. With Tim Howard and Brad Guzan remaining with their clubs, Klinsmann is focusing this month on depth and the future. At the moment, Horvath is it.
He was good enough, doing well to follow a bouncing shot from Roberney Caballero in the 28th minute and steer it out for a corner kick. Horvath then denied Arichel Hernández in the 35th. The U.S. played a high line through most of the first half and looked to catch Cuba offside. It worked—Cuba was whistled eight times—which cut down a bit on Horvath’s workload. He was cleanly beaten by Maikel Reyes in the 58th, but the shot crashed off the right post.
Whether Klinsmann gives Horvath another chance in Washington or switches to David Bingham or William Yarbrough may be an indication of how solid Horvath’s hold on the No. 3 spot is.
Klinsmann’s decision to start DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks and Fabian Johnson again is another sign that the manager has settled on that quartet as his first choice defense and intends to give them as many minutes as possible together before the Hexagonal starts next month. The high line was good for working on the group’s communication, and Cuba’s better chances came in the second half once Brooks and Yedlin came off.