SALT LAKE CITY – At the international level, it isn't often that you're unsure which, or how many players your opponent will show up with. But then nothing about playing Cuba, as the United States men's national team will in its second 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cu p game ( live, FOX, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET ), is quite like playing a regular opponent.
For starters, there's the soft but unmistakable political undercurrent. For more than a century, the two countries have alternated between being allies and enemies. And at one time, Cuba planned to build nuclear missile systems on the Soviet Union's behalf and point them at the United States. But little of all that is noticeable when both teams battle on the soccer field this Saturday.
Or so claims Cuba manager Walter Benitez, anyway. "There's always been a rivalry," he said. "But it has been a sporting one. Everything around soccer is positive and has nothing to do with politics."
Yet the isolation of Cuba and its Communist regime from the rest of the world, however - largely the doing of the United States, by the way - forever shroud the Cuban teams in mystery. Their players aren't allowed to play their club soccer abroad unless they defect - rendering them ineligible for national team selection, as per national policy. Their domestic league isn't broadcasted anywhere else, and team members are largely kept away from the locals, opponents and the media when they travel.
"With Cuba you never know what you're going to get," said the USA's Gold Cup captain DaMarcus Beasley. "Because they don't play as many games as other countries play, it's hard to get a sense of who their players are and what they do in a club situation."
This makes it a tricky assignment for the Americans. How, after all, do you prepare for such a little-known quantity? "We don't know a whole lot,"said forward Landon Donovan. "We watched pieces of their first half [against Costa Rica] when we got to the stadium the other day. We'll watch a lot of tape on them tonight. They're a little unpredictable from what we heard."
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All the Americans really know is that Cuba showed well against a superior Costa Rica side in its tournament opener, valiantly breaking out on the counter attack, before buckling under the steadily building pressure and losing 3-0, all second-half goals.
"Especially in the first half against Costa Rica they showed really good qualities," said United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "We expect a difficult game against Cuba. It's a side that wants to show off. They want to prove what they have and they have a lot of talent."
There are no guarantees about which Cubans will materialize. At tournaments such as these, especially when they take place in North America, the Cubans are typically ravaged by defections, even if their professional prospects here are modest. None have been reported yet. But they can happen at any time.
So, little empirical evidence on which to build a game plan remains but the historical record of this contest. The USA is 7-1-1 against Cuba all-time. In 1947 and 1949, the sides split their three games, with a win each and a draw. And in the other six games, all occurring since 1998, the Americans are a perfect 6-0-0 with a 20-2 goal difference.
"We had a tough game going down to Cuba [a 1-0 World Cup qualifier win in 2008] and had a little bit of success when playing them in the States," recalls Beasley. "It just depends. We've definitely got to be concentrated for the whole game because they're a dangerous team - they've got some dangerous players. They're very athletic but they can play football also."
So too, it would appear, can the Americans. They have won their last six games in a row, their second-longest winning streak ever since claiming seven straight in the summer of 2007, when they won the Gold Cup for the last time. This summer, they dropped a friendly to Belgium but rallied to stun Germany, win three World Cup qualifiers, a friendly against Guatemala and, on Tuesday, their first Gold Cup game against Belize. Those last two were won by a combined score of 12-1.
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And that's where their focus should be, argues forward Herculez Gomez: on USA's own performance. "Obviously, not knowing what to expect is difficult," he said. "But it's all about us and the mentality and the approach we take and how we can keep fine-tuning those things that we need to work on because I think if we do that, we'll be fine."
Midfielder Jose Torres - who, incidentally, made his debut against Cuba in 2008 - agreed. "We've moved the ball very well, moved off the ball and played simple," he said. "When the flow is going like that, great things come your way."
Cuba intends to do the same, however. "There's so much heat and altitude so that could be something against our team," said Benitez. "We're going to try to manage the game as well as we can, to not run a lot on the field. We just want to retain the ball."
This, then, remains a tricky tie. "It s a situation for us where we can only lose," said Klinsmann. "If you win that is what everyone expects. So they have everything to win here and we have only to lose except if you do the job as precise and focused as against Belize."
Given all the variables in the equation, that task looms tall.