The U.S. Men’s National Team’s clash with Cuba was not a good soccer game. The play was ugly. The field was uglier. The stakes were low, and the desire, at times, seemed even lower.
However, it was a good look into the USMNT program, and what needs fine-tuning heading into the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying.
While a majority of the team’s biggest stars faltered, a group of young prospects stepped up to carry the load. Meanwhile, one of the most maligned players of the Jurgen Klinsmann era rose above the criticism, scoring a second half goal to avoid disaster.
With bigger tests on the horizon, it’s important not to read too much into a 2-0 win on a field that looked more like a backyard than a soccer pitch. However, there were several important takeaways for the U.S. as Klinsmann continues to finalize what should be the first team going forward.
Here are some key takeaways from Friday’s USMNT win:
DESPITE REPEATED CRITICISM, WONDOLOWSKI JUSTIFIES SPOT
Chris Wondolowski will never be world class. Heck, he may never be much more than a solid MLS goalscorer as his career rattles on. However, the forward showed that he does offer a bit more than just an enthusiastic demeanor and veteran presence.
For years, Wondolowski has been the USMNT whipping boy. His miss against Belgium still hovers above him more than two years later, prompting critics to come out of the woodwork whenever his name is all too predictably listed on an American roster.
Those critics were out in full force again as the San Jose Earthquakes star was added to Friday’s match. Moments later, he was pouncing, in true Wondolowski fashion, poaching home a rebound for a goal that turned the tide. After that, it was an assist, setting up Julian Green to seal the win. Wondolowski wasn’t brought in for moral support; he was brought in to make a difference, and he did just that. He will never be the player to lead the U.S. past the Argentinas and Colombias of the world, but in those road CONCACAF games where split seconds can keep the U.S. from embarrassing losses, Wondo always seems to be ready to go.
Are there younger options? Yes. Are there better options? Probably. But Wondolowski’s spot on the national team is deserved for many reasons, several of which were on display on Friday afternoon. He’s the consummate professional and, in games like Friday’s fiasco, a soothing presence for a team that can use one every now and then. Wondolowski still has a part to play, even if it is never one that will see him light up the biggest stage.
GREEN, HORVATH MAKE THEIR CASE
Throughout a lackluster first half, just two USMNT players looked ready to play. Coincidentally, it was the two starters that most needed a statement performance to seal their spots on the senior team.
Julian Green and Ethan Horvath were the lone standouts throughout a majority of Friday’s match. Surrounded by first-team regulars, the young duo shined on opposite ends of the pitch as their more veteran teammates sputtered. At moments, the two looked like the only players that truly cared, although they certainly had reason to.
Green entered camp with a point to prove. His career has been on on what felt like a constant dip since the high of scoring against Belgium, as a spot on the senior team looked very, very distant for quite some time. A solid string of performances during Bayern’s preseason earned him another look, and he took full advantage by proving the USMNT’s most active attacker throughout Friday’s match. In addition to setting up and scoring a goal, Green fired seven of the USMNT’s 17 shots while completing 16 of 17 passes. Was his decision-making questionable at times? Yes. However, Green appeared to be the only attacking player with any ideas until Wondolowski’s entrance in the second half.
Horvath, like Green, had some shaky moments. He came off his line a bit too quickly on one Cuba chance, and was lucky not to be beaten as the Cubans rattled the post time and time again. Still, the Molde goalkeeper made a trio of saves in a very tough environment while looking much more mature than one would expect from a 21-years-old. He certainly furthered his case for the future, although William Yarbrough and David Bingham will likely get their chance on Tuesday. The fact that Klinsmann trusted Horvath for a full 90 is telling, and he rewarded his coach by keeping a clean sheet on his debut, even if it wasn’t the most comprehensive showing.
Overall, the two up-and-comers stood out, and should certainly be up for consideration as the U.S. marches towards the Hex.
FIRST TEAM NEEDS TO SHOW MORE AHEAD OF BIGGER TESTS
The U.S. never looked good on Friday. It was clear, from the first minute, that there was no rhythm, and no drive, for a team that should have won Friday’s match by a handful of goals. Boasting a lineup featuring a majority of the players likely to take the field against Mexico, the U.S. expected more.
It never came, as the team’s biggest stars disappeared. Call it a lack of motivation, a lack of comfort or even just a bad day, but the U.S. did not show up on Friday afternoon. Part of that certainly has to do with circumstances, but it also has to raise a few questions of what lies ahead.
The defense, the rock of the team throughout the Copa America, looked shaky. DeAndre Yedlin had his moments, but was likely outplayed by Timmy Chandler. Geoff Cameron and John Brooks bungled touch after touch while struggling to truly contain what should have been an impotent Cuba attack.
In front of them, Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan never truly got going, remaining quiet throughout the match. At the forward position, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood seemingly couldn’t get out of each other’s way as the two lacked any sort of spark in the attacking third.
Is it overly concerning? Probably not. This group has shown the ability to go toe-to-toe with teams much tougher than Cuba. But attitude-wise, the U.S. needs to show a bit more against New Zealand if they hope to approach the Hex with the correct mentality. There’s no room for a letdown against Mexico or Costa Rica, and the U.S. needs to prepare accordingly.
U.S. ESCAPED UNSCATHED FROM UGLY MATCH
Friday’s match was several things. It was a political olive branch, one symbolizing improved relations between two previously-hostile nations. It was a solid runout for a U.S. team that needed a bit of adversity before tackling the Hex. What it was not was a soccer masterclass.
It was never going to be pretty. The field was a disaster, rendering ball movement on playable. The schedule was a mess as the U.S. had to leapfrog Hurricane Matthew to even make it to the island safely. The motivation, realistically, wasn’t there, as the U.S. is already looking ahead to next month. Perspective is key when it comes to Friday’s effort, one which certainly won’t be remembered for very long.
Friday afforded young players like Christian Pulisic a first-hand look at the trials and tribulations of CONCACAF, a federation where it is all too common to play on fields worse than any seen back home. Pulisic was one of several players exposed to the physical nature of the game, and Klinsmann was smart to yank the midfielder at halftime to prevent a catastrophic injury.
The biggest positive of all from Friday’s events was that there were no true injuries, save for a vicious headkick suffered by Steve Birnbaum. The U.S. escaped relatively unscathed, and they will be better for it in the future.