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Room for growth after US's early romp

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Joe Corona (L) and Freddy Adu (R) walk off the field after defeating Cuba.
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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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As far as tournament openers go, the US Under-23 national team’s first Olympic Qualifier went about as well as anyone could have hoped for.

Anyone who wasn’t rooting for Cuba that is.

When and Where

The US men begin their road to London on Thursday, March 22 in Nashville against Cuba, the first of five possible matches in CONCACAF's qualifying tournament.

Date Time Opponent Round
Thur., Mar. 22 6-0 Cuba Group stage
Sat., Mar. 24 0-2 Canada Group stage
Mon., Mar. 26 9:00 p.m. ET El Salvador Group stage

The highly-regarded US team figured to dominate Cuba on Thursday night. Fortunately for the Yanks, an early red card turned that likelihood into a certainty, as the high-powered US offense tore apart the Caribbean squad on their way to a 6-0 victory that felt more like a training exercise than Olympic qualifier.

Midfielders Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud provided clear evidence why US head coach Caleb Porter has appointed them as starters in the midfield triangle of his 4-3-3 formation. Corona, a former Mexican youth national team player who has settled in nicely playing for his native USA, scored a hat trick and made it look easy. The Norwegian-born Diskerud, played provider on two of the goals on a night when his feathery touch and graceful passing only served to raise the expectations for his senior national team future.

Corona and Diskerud were the headliners on a fairly long list of impressive American performers on Thursday night at LP Field. Freddy Adu showed off some tricks and dangerous passes before unleashing a long-range blast for a goal. Brek Shea also got into the act and helped provide a dangerous option on the flank opposite Adu before leaving the match in the second half. Juan Agudelo played the target striker role well for 45 minutes before leaving at halftime, and Jared Jeffrey provided a poised counterbalance to the dangerous forays of midfield partners Corona and Diskerud.

There was plenty for Porter to be happy with, but he isn’t likely to get caught up in the big score line. He is fully aware that the Cuba match was always going to be a warm-up for the tougher matches that lie ahead. The Cuba match was always going to be about establishing a tempo, getting the offense clicking, staying healthy and avoiding silly cards.

The United States passed all of those tests, but there was still teaching points to be made ahead of matches against Canada on Saturday and El Salvador on Monday. You can look at the first 15 minutes of the match, which the Americans started slowly compared to what was expected. Instead of playing effective ball possession, the Americans began in very old school American fashion, by lumping long balls from the back.

Those early jitters eventually faded and the red card made Cuba even more vulnerable to the American team’s strengths, though it didn’t necessarily look that way in the beginning. The first 35 minutes saw the United States leading 2-0 on a pair of goals created through set pieces, but it was far from a dominant performance. There wasn’t the high-pressure defending Porter preaches so much. If anything, the Americans looked like a cat playing with a mouse, uncertain whether to just play or devour it.

OLYMPIC QUALIFIER

See how easily the US U-23s got past Cuba on Thursday night.

It took a good portion of the first half, but eventually the United States found an attacking rhythm and we started to really see the skillful, possession-oriented style that Porter preaches. The defensive pressure improved in the second half, but by then Cuba had run out of gas and interest in the match.

If Thursday’s match was an exercise in working out the kinks, then the US team did that well. The defensive line overcame some early jitters to play a strong match. The team’s fullbacks, Kofi Sarkodie and Zarek Valentin, didn’t have memorable nights, but neither was truly tested defensively at all. For the forward line of Shea, Agudelo and Adu, the match served as the perfect confidence builder.

The next test for Porter will be to decide on what lineup changes to make for Saturday. There were no real bad performances, but it seems highly unlikely Porter would trot out the same starting XI for two games in three days: especially when El Salvador, the USA’s third group opponent, looked so polished on Thursday.

One player who made a strong case for starting versus Canada is Joe Gyau, who was threatening for seemingly every one of the 34 minutes he was on the field. Terrence Boyd is another new option at forward, assuming Porter won’t start Teal Bunbury against Canada, the national team he left behind to join the United States.

AMERICANS ABROAD

Want to find out the top American performances overseas? Check them out here.

Don’t expect wholesale changes though. A tougher test looms on Saturday, with Canada serving as a better challenge with more talent. That may be hard to believe considering the Canadians struggled in their own opening group match against El Salvador, and would have lost if not for the heroics of goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz. However, the reality is that Saturday’s game should be an intense match.

Canada knows that a loss, and especially a bad loss, could doom their chances of advancing to the semifinals. They should present a considerably tougher challenge than Cuba did for the United States. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the potential opponents awaiting the USA in the all-important semifinals are going to be tough. The sooner this US team is facing a real test, the better.

That isn’t to say Thursday’s romp wasn’t meaningful. It may have just been an easy victory against a weak and short-handed opponent. Yet, it also served as the impressive debut of the Caleb Porter era, and the coming-out parties for Corona and Diskerud, who both have bright futures in the Olympic and senior national teams respectively.

Thursday’s romp is just the first of what the United States will be hoping is five victories on the way to a tournament title and Olympic berth. Thursday’s victory was an important and successful first step for a new coach and a new generation of talent with expectations that are growing by the minute.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.

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