Danger signs surrounded the United States‘ CONCACAF U-20 Championship semifinal date with Cuba on Friday night. The match carried all the hallmarks of a classic trap game: a fatigued and revamped group playing on short rest with a berth in this summer’s World Cup already secured.
Instead of looking ahead to a likely final against Mexico and succumbing to those practical concerns, the US dispatched the Cubans with a pair of early goals and sauntered to a straightforward 2-0 victory at Estadio Cuauhtemoc.
Most of the action on the night unfolded within the first 11 minutes. The bright start commenced when Benji Joya clipped a neat ball over the top into the path of Mario Rodriguez’s deep run from midfield. Rodriguez kept his composure behind the line and slotted home after eight minutes. Daniel Cuevas doubled the advantage three minutes later after the Cubans stood off him and watched his deflected effort nestle into the back of the net.
“It’s always good to start off well at the beginning,” Joya said. “Getting those two goals put us in a good situation. We just concentrated on not making mistakes and keep playing the way we did when we started, which got us the two goals. I guess the team did a pretty good job of it.”
Little room for error existed on a night when the US took the field without the departed Luis Gil and Caleb Stanko and the injured Jose Villarreal (ankle). US coach Tab Ramos named just 14 outfield players in his squad (including Villarreal) and selected a natural left-sided attacking player on the right side of defense (Dillon Serna) to underscore the dearth of available options.
The early salvos permitted the US to adopt a more measured approach to the game with its weakened group and focus on preventing the Cubans from playing quickly on the break. The five-man midfield – anchored by the recalled Mikey Lopez and the steady Wil Trapp – closed off the passing lanes and exposed the Cubans’ rather slack approach to retaining possession.
Although the US conceded more of the play than it would have preferred, it still managed to keep its shape and thwart any of the timid attacks launched by a Cuban side unaccustomed to operating so frequently on the ball.
“I thought the team did a good job of handling a Cuba team that – normally, if you allow them to play in transition – can give you a lot of problems,” Ramos said. “We cut that off and we did a good job.”
As a rather limp second half unfolded, the Americans received a glimpse into the cauldron ahead of them if they meet Mexico – expected to brush aside El Salvador in the nightcap – in the final. Mexican supporters entered the stadium gradually as the match progressed and voiced their support for the Cubans to offer a slice of the rancor expected on Sunday night.
“We’re playing a World Cup opponent in an environment which, you could see as the stadium started to fill, the fans were starting to cheer for Cuba,” Ramos said. “The atmosphere was good for us and I thought the players responded to it well. If we get an opportunity to go to the final against Mexico, that’s an experience I hope my players get to live.”
Barring some sort of miracle from El Salvador, the US will face its bitter rival on foreign soil with the chance to win this championship for the first time. The intimidating encounter constitutes exactly the sort of experience required to prepare players for the greater challenges ahead as their careers progress.
“Having pressure on us is going to make us better players,” Joya said. “Obviously, right here, everybody is against us. We’re doing a good job of dealing with it. When we’re on the field, we don’t hear any of it. We’re just concentrating on the game and we’re focused.”
Those claims resonate after the US brushed aside the potential pitfalls against Cuba and secured a spot in the final. Now the Americans face the difficult task of sidestepping those hurdles once again to claim the trophy on Sunday night.