SANDY, UTAH – Of all the difficult games that stared the United States men's national team in the face heading into the summer, this one against Cuba was doubtless not the one in which head coach Jurgen Klinsmann expected to do the most coaching.
Nevertheless, he spent much of the game along the sideline, pressing his side to do better, begging for more sharpness, tempo and urgency. They would ultimately prevail 4-1 , take their record-tying seventh straight win and book their place in the C ONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals, but a shocking Cuban lead put all that in doubt.
In a plodding first half, wherein the Cubans left all of the actual soccer-playing up to the Americans as they huddled in their own half, the tempo soon dropped to unsustainably low levels for the USA. With far too few of Yanks committed to sharp ball distribution and making runs, their only hope was to resort to long balls and crosses. Predictably, that was not how forwards Landon Donovan and Herculez Gomez were best served.
Klinsmann ascribed the tepid start in part to a sudden pre-game rain shower. "The rain came and suddenly the air was really heavy," he said. "They were coming out of the locker room with good energy but it happens sometime that the energy is not there anymore when you finally start the game."
Midfielder Joe Corona had a different explanation. "We came out with a little bit of overconfidence," he said. "It was a little bit sloppy in the first half because they have all the men behind our forwards."
Chris Wondolowski's (L) impressive form was on full display during USA's 4-1 victory over Cuba (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images).
Either way, the Americans got quite the scare in the 36th minute, when the seemingly unthinkable happened. Cuba made a rare venture into the American half as Ariel Pedro Martinez ran away from left back Edgar Castillo and then beat him the box. His cut-back for Jose Ciprian was on point, after the latter made his escape from the ball-watching Oguchi Onyewu and cleanly ripped his shot past Nick Rimando.
"The game was expected to be difficult," said Klinsmann. "Especially in the first half because they were sitting so deep - nine players in the box - and you've gotta find ways to get through there and if you don't there's always a chance for a counterbreak, which they used that one time."
All the Americans had to show for their considerable efforts in the opening act - led by Donovan and Gomez's toil and reflected by 76 percent of possession - was a smattering of chances and a rightly disallowed Donovan goal. But they were thrown a bone just before the half. At last, an American made a sharp cut into the box as Castillo combined well with Donovan, after which he was scythed down by Jeniel Molina. Donovan coolly converted the penalty.
"It definitely helps you get things more urgent, suddenly going a goal down out of nothing," said Klinsmann. "At halftime I just told them: 'Guys we've got to speed it up here.' In these guys you have to double the amount of work as your opponent because you have to break them down."
But if the Americans were a bit tidier on the ball and moved better off it in the second act, the overall run of play was just as sluggish as in the first. Whether it was due to the 90-degree heat, the altitude or Cuba's devotion to slowing things down, little progress was made on that front. Still, the Americans found their way through the Cuban blockade all the same. In the 57th minute, Joe Corona latched onto a loose ball outside the box and magnificently curled the winner around Odelin Molina.
Video: Chris Wondolowski talks USA v Cuba
"Whose house?" asked the American Outlaws rhetorically, before responding to their own query with a heartfelt "Our house!" You would have thought they'd been observing a fiery battle with an archrival like Mexico rather than a regional minnow like Cuba.
Not ten minutes later, substitute Chris Wondolowski slipped in front of his man and deftly deflected Kyle Beckerman's precise cross over Molina and into the net. And in the 85th, he slammed his second home to make it 4-1 after Castillo chested down in the box and Renay Malblanche whiffed his clearance.
That made for six Wondolowski goals in his last three US games, even if he missed an effort from point-blank range too. After getting three in his last game, when his name had been spelled with an extra W, he had the additional good-luck letter printed on the inside of his jersey before the game. "I told them I had to now," he explained.
But if the score was ultimately comfortable, the bulk of the game was not. Nor did it inspire much confidence in the depth of this Gold Cup squad. If the USA sent a B-team to this tournament, it was so diluted on Saturday that it more resembled a C-team. This was understandable, given that they had had just three days off since the 6-1 win in their opener against Belize and that the toughest challenge in Costa Rica looms on Tuesday.
Yet lots of players underdelivered for no apparent reason. Brek Shea went off the boil early and painfully. Castillo and Onyewu were shown up on Cuba's goal. Stu Holden wasn't as influential as one might expect of a player of his gifts. Tony Beltran seemed a little light for this weight class.
"Overall, the result was what we wanted," said Klinsmann. "Three points. Next round. Moving on."
And that was probably the most charitable assessment that could credibly be given of this game.