What was the value of the USA's bumpy win in Cuba?

By Mike Woitalla

The USA's 2-0 win in a friendly over Cuba on Friday marked its first return to the island since September of 2008, when the USA beat the Cubans, 1-0, in a semifinal round qualifying game for the 2010 World Cup.

Two players who played in the 2007 game, in which Clint Dempsey scored the deciding goal, played on Friday: midfielders Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan.

Friday’s game also took place at the Pedro Marrero Stadium, with no indication of improvements to the bumpy playing field that might even get complaints from Sunday league players.

“Obviously, both teams had to play with the field conditions,” said Landon Donovan after the 2008 game, “but it wasn’t a flat surface. Even if you hit a good pass, it can bounce on you.”

After Friday’s game, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, “It was a tremendous experience, but at the end of the day, the field was a field that was not playable.”

Back in 2008, the USA had to play in Cuba. Friday’s game was by choice, but the options were few for Klinsmann’s team as it prepares for the start of the final round of 2018 Word Cup qualifying, against Mexico Nov. 11 and at Costa Rica Nov. 15. With South American and European teams playing World Cup qualifiers this weekend, that left weaker Concacaf teams, like Cuba, whose quest to reach the 2018 World Cup ended by coming up short a two-game series with Curacao.

Pedro Marrero Stadium groundskeepers in 2008.

Before the game, Klinsmann said, “We are always looking forward for our group to have different experiences, and this is a unique opportunity.”

He told his players to explore Havana: “You have to combine, both on and off the field. … Sometimes it’s not only about the [soccer] side for developing players, but also off the field, too. ... Some players even went to a school class, surprisingly, and were part of a classroom.”

As for what happened on the field, the Cubans frustrated the Americans until Chris Wondolowski smacked home the rebound of a Julian Green shot in the 62nd minute. Nine minutes later Green finished a pass from Wondolowski to make it 2-0.

The Americans survived the bad field without injuries. Defender Steve Birnbaum suffered a bloody cut to the head, but that was the result of a high kick by Duzney Espinoza.

“It wasn’t ideal,” said Wondolowski of the grass. “It’s part of the game. Two teams have to play on that. You have to take it for it is and at halftime we made some adjustments, a little more direct and we didn’t want to make silly passes in the middle where you could lose it and get counterattacked on.”

Playing in less than ideal conditions isn’t a bad way to prepare for the 10 games -- half of which will be on foreign turf -- that will determine whether the USA reaches the 2018 World Cup. And for however crude some of the play may have been, Klinsmann got another chance to give experience to his younger players.

The 21-year-old goalkeeper Ethan Horvath made his national team debut. The 18-year-old Christian Pulisic earned his ninth cap, 21-year-old Jordan Morris his 12th and 21-year-old Paul Arriola his third.

Green, remember, is also only 21 years old and has gone through tough times since scoring for the USA at the 2014 World Cup at age 19. Unable to break into Bayern Munich’s starting lineup, he was able to prove worthy of remaining in Klinsmann’s consideration with his performance against Cuba.

The USA’s team at the 2014 World Cup was the 11th oldest of the 32 teams, with an average age of 27 years, 10 months. Its three youngest players were Green (who played 16 minutes), John Brooks (who at age 21 played 45 minutes), and DeAndre Yedlin (who at age 20 played 112 minutes).

Against Cuba, Yedlin earned his 41st cap and Brooks his 27th.

For the USA to succeed at the 2018 World Cup, it will need a good balance of older veterans and experienced younger players.

Friday’s game may not have been easy on the eyes for the viewers at home, but eight of the players Klinsmann fielded were 23 years old or younger. The Cuba trip didn't just give the players a chance to check out a fascinating city like Havana, it also indicated that this U.S. team in the midst of the crucial process of integrating a younger generation.

7 comments about "What was the value of the USA's bumpy win in Cuba?".
  1. Wooden Ships, October 9, 2016 at 9:18 a.m.

    Mike, I very much enjoy Soccer America's writers and views. The opportunity to contribute with many passionate supporters of our sport is something I really value. While playing and coaching I never really had the time. Now, I watch more matches than ever, one of the few perks of being retired. I've expressed my sentiments regarding the recklessness of this Cuba match. Jurgen felt it was a tremendous experience. From jump he's encouraging direct-long ball, I don't see at all how this is tremendous for our style and momentum for the upcoming hex. This was a step back and an error in managerial judgement. It was ironic to see his gyrations on the injury to Birnbaum, what did he expect, was he really caught off guard? For our players it was a survival game, like sitting in a classroom looking at the clock. How might your article or Klinsmann's reaction been different had CP, or FJ or any of our key players been injured and unable to play for our qualifiers? I think being truthful about this "tremendous experience" should not go unnoticed.

  2. Joe Linzner, October 9, 2016 at 1:04 p.m.

    There is absolutely nothing that JK does that will ever earn anything but complaints. I too have played, coached, refereed and am now retired both as a soccer person and my every day profession as well. Any game teaches, every game allows further evaluation. The field certainly did not cause the gash. No injuries and a game under the belt of the players under difficult condition is for me, in ways even more telling than on a polished turf. Every game has risk of injury. If fear of injury is the only convern then I would say why not simply play the elimination games, forget and practice at all that way you are sure there will be no injuries!Of course I am sure you must have complained when JK said the US has to play with a bit more venom because that ups the risk of INJURY. Did you watch Germany take apart the Czechs. Possession and Long passes intermixed which is how modern soccer is played, If you can, control the ball, possession is risky, so you use the long ball, it worked so why the criticism. it wasn't pretty but I have also seen criticism because American soccer isn't based on pretty. So I ask, What is it that people want, other than to bash JK any chance they get! Plain BS.
    Oh, and if the dog wouldn't have stopped to drop a load he'd have caught
    the rabbit!

  3. Kent James, October 9, 2016 at 2:38 p.m.

    Good article, and I think the reasons for playing Cuba in Cuba were sound. I am not always a JK fan, but I think he's been getting better lately (I thought the lineup against Cuba made sense). Couldn't understand why Wondo's still on the team (I've always liked him, and was glad he got a run in the WC, but he's clearly to old to be of use in Russia), but hearing JK say that he's a positive presence in the locker room, and helps the younger guys acclimate, his selection is justified (and he's a good poacher, as his play against Cuba demonstrated).

    I agree with Joe, experience counts, and Cuba is not that far off from Concacaf qualifiers; it's not all about the quality of the opponents. And being flexible and adjusting (using long balls because the turf takes away the short passing game) is something good soccer players (and teams) do. That being said, watching it was not a great experience...

  4. Wooden Ships, October 9, 2016 at 2:42 p.m.

    Didn't criticize him for the stepping on toes, I knew what he was talking about. Played for a former Bundesligar. Like much of JK, this though was not thought out well.

  5. Ginger Peeler, October 9, 2016 at 6:04 p.m.

    Go back in time a bit to the Copa America that time, there were 2 dates on the FIFA calendar when the USA could schedule friendlies before our next WCQ fixtures. Unfortunately, the teams we would have preferred to play in friendlies were ALL already scheduled for their own WCQ games. This was discussed over and over, on TV and also in columns here on Soccer America! So, we had a choice of playing whatever teams we could find, or not playing at all. Cuba and New Zealand turned out to be available. No brainer! We play and gain more experience for our guys. A diplomacy conspiracy? You were kidding, right? JK had NO control over the condition of the field or the competency of the referees...I believe they are determined by CONCACAF and/or FIFA. JK was obviously very unhappy about the condition of the field. But you have to work with what you're given. By the way, both the aforementioned commentators and columns have pointed out that trying to schedule friendlies with some of the good quality soccer teams we have played previously will certainly continue to present problems for the USA. When those European teams are available for friendlies, they're most likely to fill their calendars with other European teams. I agree that there are things that Klinsmann has done and he should be held responsible for them, but accusing him of something which he has no control over is petty and just WRONG. It shows a lack of understanding of the process, possibly for failing to pay attention. And, thank you, Joe, for putting things in the proper perspective.

  6. Wooden Ships replied, October 9, 2016 at 8:31 p.m.

    I guess I didn't realize he has no control over scheduling or that its a process. Not trying to be petty just questioning the selection of Cuba in Cuba and Puerto Rico before. If there were no other options then I stand corrected. When I scheduled matches I always weighed costs and benefits for my teams. The pitch and the quality of the opponent was foremost. Lack of understanding? Joe, and the proper perspective? Ginger it is A perspective and one in which you agree, but, is it the only?

  7. R2 Dad, October 11, 2016 at 12:21 a.m.

    Imagine--CONCACAF referees allowed/encouraged overly physical play and violent conduct. Whoda thunkit?

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