United States can confirm their place in the final four of the 2019-20 CONCACAF Nations League with victory away to Cuba in the final fixture of the group at the Truman Bodden Sports Complex in Georgetown, Cayman Islands today (7:30 ET Tuesday, live on FS1 / Unimas).
Canada have a three-point lead at the top of Group A, but they have already completed their schedule. The USMNT already have a superior goal difference, so a win today would see them level Canada on points and best them by that measure to win the group and advance.
That scenario seemed fairly unlikely when the US fell to a 0-2 defeat away to Canada last month, not least because their performance didn’t really warrant any better. A failure to defeat Canada in the return fixture would have rendered this Cuba game meaningless, and Gregg Berhalter’s side had shown little to inspire confidence in their ability to beat them.
Not only did the US defeat Canada in Orlando on Friday, but they did so handsomely. Jordan Morris got them off to a perfect start by opening the scoring two minutes in and then provided the assist for Gyasi Zardes to notch the second just past the twenty minute mark. Aaron Long grabbed a third before the interval, and after Canada had got one back, Zardes scored his second right at the end to add further relish to the scoreline.
It was a result and performance that lifted a bit of the negativity that had been swirling around the national team following that away defeat. “There were some real big criticisms of the group,” Berhalter noted afterwards. “It was a perceived lack of effort, a lack of heart. You couldn’t mention that today at all. The way the guys were fighting for each other . . . we were ready to overcome anything.”
It wasn’t sufficient to dispel his doubters. It was fairly easy to argue that beating the seventh-best team in CONCACAF, one ranked 46 places behind them in the FIFA rankings, didn’t exactly equate to a massive achievement. If the US can just more or less do what is expected of them over the remainder of Berhalter’s time in charge, it should be enough to make the 2022 World Cup after the embarrassment of missing out on the 2018 edition.
Cuba would like to have the sort of the problems the United States have right now. They are in the midst of a very difficult time both on and off the pitch. The latter is evidenced by the fact that today’s match will take place in the Cayman Islands because Cuba’s national stadium in Havana failed to meet the minimum requirements set by CONCACAF to host Nations League matches.
Prior to their draw (0-0) and victory (1-0) in a pair of friendlies away to Nicaragua earlier this month, Cuba had been on a seven-match losing streak, including three 0-7 thrashings and one 0-6. They had gone seven fixtures without scoring before Maikel Reyes fired home the decisive goal in the second of those encounters with Nicaragua.
Cuba have never really been a force within CONCACAF and their one and only World Cup appearance came way back in 1938. Even so, the last few years have been especially tough for them. They have fallen from 91st in the FIFA rankings in 2015 to 179th. Their cause has hardly been helped by the number of the players who have defected whilst on trips abroad, including 10 in the last year alone.
Yonaldi Garcia Correa become the latest to defect ahead of the match with the United States in Washington, D.C. last month. On that occasion, the difference in quality between the sides was made patently clear by the fact that the US put seven goals past them in a 7-0 victory, with Weston McKennie scoring a hat-trick.
Cuba received a similar thrashing away to Canada but were then able to limit them to a one-goal victory in the return match (also played in Georgetown). However, it is unlikely they will be able to limit the US. Even with some underlying issues, Berhalter’s side are still more than strong enough to see off such weak opposition. They can be fancied to secure a very comfortable victory.