What a difference four years makes. The United States defeated Cuba to reach the knockout round in Olympic qualifying where it has a great chance to avoid Mexico until the final.
After two wins in two games, the United States looks in good shape to qualify for the Olympics, unlike four years ago. A 6–1 win over Cuba on Saturday sent the Americans to the knockout round with a great chance to win their group and avoid Mexico until the final.
The U.S. kept a steady attack going throughout the game. The first goal came after a quarter-hour, as 17-year-old center back Cameron Carter-Vickers headed home a free kick from the left flank amid poor Cuban marking.
Matt Miazga added a similar effort in the 35th minute, except this time on a cross through the run of play from the right by Matt Polster. Two minutes later, Jerome Kiesewetter scored the first of his pair of goals, followed by his second just after halftime.
He and forward partner Jordan Morris exited the match before the hour mark, undoubtedly to conserve energy for a tricky third match against Panama on Tuesday. Even with the U.S.’s top attackers out, Emerson Hyndman scored and substitute forward Alonso Hernández added the sixth goal.
A stoppage-time consolation strike from Cuba couldn’t damper the greater implication of the final result: the U.S. will be in the semifinals this time after being eliminated in the group stage four years ago.
Here are three thoughts on a comfortable U.S. win and what’s ahead:
1. Americans deliver expected result with plenty to spare
After scoring an early goal, the U.S. seemed content to walk through the rest of the match. The team exuded confidence that more goals would come, while keeping in mind that it will face probably its toughest opponent of the group stage next, on just two full days’ rest.
As Cuba brought the ball forward, Kiesewetter and Morris dropped near the halfway line, only initiating pressure when it neared them. Keeping in mind the fixture congestion and travel to Denver (and then Salt Lake for the final matches) coming up, it’s no surprise Andreas Herzog’s boys never really seemed to get up to full speed against a much weaker Cuban side.
The altitude of Colorado and Utah ensure that physical preparation will only get more difficult, coupled with the heat in Kansas City for the first two matches. The U.S. will want to be in the best condition possible for the decisive match next Saturday and a potential matchup against Mexico in the final the following Tuesday.
2. Herzog setting tone of high expectations
It seems as though Herzog won’t settle for anything less than winning the pre-Olympic tournament, which is something the U.S. hasn’t done since 1992. After a subpar showing in the first game against Canada, much-hyped prospect Gedion Zelalem found himself on the bench Saturday.
The message is clear: another lapse in trying to get to the Olympics is unacceptable. Even as his team led by a handful of goals, Herzog sat on the bench with a scowl and arms crossed when the television cameras panned to him midway through the second half.
Zelalem might not have impressed yet, but Kiesewetter and Morris certainly have. The first-choice forwards have each scored braces in the opening matches, while the back line hardly touched the ball in its defensive third against Cuba in particular.
3. U.S. all but avoids disaster of 2012 already
The Americans could still not qualify for Rio, of course. Likely semifinal opponents Honduras and Costa Rica won’t be pushovers, and the U.S. could find it difficult to play to that level after inconsistent opposition in the group stage. (That’s probably why Herzog is setting such high expectations as well.)
However, the U.S. has given itself the best chance possible with its performances through the first two games. Canada has to beat Cuba, hope the U.S. loses to Panama and somehow make up a seven-goal difference between the teams in the process.
The same couldn’t be said four years ago, when the U.S. played the same opponents in the first two games but in reverse order, defeating Cuba before a shocking loss to Canada. This time, a similar result in the final group match as last time — the 3–3 draw against El Salvador that knocked them out — would still ensure that Group A belongs to the Americans and that they’ll face the weakest possible opponent in the semifinals.