DAVENPORT, Florida — The similarities are impossible to ignore, but that may ultimately be what helps the U.S. Men’s National Team avoid having history repeat itself.
Two years ago, the USMNT scored four goals in a big win against a Concacaf opponent in Orlando, then traveled to the Caribbean for a match it was fully expected to win easily, and a match the Americans could not afford to lose.
Two years later, the USMNT is living the same exact scenario, only this time with the knowledge of the disaster that was the team’s World Cup qualifying loss to Trinidad & Tobago, a loss that cost the Americans their place in the 2018 World Cup.
The USMNT faces Cuba on Tuesday night in Concacaf Nations League action, needing a win to secure first place in its group, which would secure a place in the tournament’s knockout rounds in 2020. The Americans will be looking to overcome the challenge of tough playing conditions in the Caribbean, as well as looking to avoid enduring a repeat of that devastating night in Trinidad two years ago.
“I think it is a good test for us,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter told SBI. “It’s a good test to show that we’ve improved, that we’ve learned lessons, that we understand our heritage, we understand the trials and tribulations of teams before us and what it takes to be successful, and how your mindset needs to shift after a good victory.
“There’s a lot of parallels and I think they are useful as examples,” Berhalter said. “We’re absolutely going to learn from it, and to us now it’s about avoiding complacency, avoiding any type of attitude that our job is done because it’s not, and we’ve got work to do.”
Brad Guzan was on the bench for the USMNT for the 2017 loss to Trinidad & Tobago, and as he prepares to start against Cuba, he remembers all too clearly what went wrong two years ago.
“We were in this same city two years ago, good result in the first game, then ultimately go down there and certainly didn’t bring the intensity and desire it was going to take to get a result,” Guzan told SBI. “We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Regardless of the opponent, and what they’ve got going on for themselves, we’ve got to make sure as a group that we understand the task at hand. When we step on the pitch, step on the pitch as if it’s a final to make sure after 90 minutes we get the result we need.”
The setting isn’t quite exactly the same as the 2017 trip to Trinidad. Cuba is an even bigger underdog than the Soca Warriors were two years ago, and Tuesday’s Nations League match is being played at a neutral site, in the Cayman Islands, and not in Cuba.
What will be similar is the sultry conditions and poor playing surface that are part of the routine of playing in Concacaf. It will be a new experience for some USMNT players, but not for some others who know it all too well.
“Unfortunately it brings me back to the Trinidad game a bit, where the conditions weren’t very good and you can sometimes get messed up mentally a bit,” DeAndre Yedlin told SBI. “At least for me, going into it, I’ve experienced that so now I know everything has to be full focus. No matter what, both teams have to play on the same pitch, both teams have the same facilities, and it’s who can play the better game.”
Yedlin and Paul Arriola both started for the United States in the loss to Trinidad & Tobago, and both could feature against Cuba. They, along with Guzan and Tim Ream, are the four players on the current squad that were on the team that lost in Trinidad.
“I think now, especially with this group, one of the things Gregg has really harped on is that we stay focused at all times,” Yedlin said. “Before (against Trinidad & Tobago), we got carried away a little bit thinking we could go into the game thinking it would be easier than it was and had it. We’ve been fully focused in this camp and that’s not going to change before the Cuba game.”
The Americans routed Cuba, 7-0, in October, but that Cuban team was essentially an Under-23 team brought over to gain experience for a young generation of players. It is unclear how similar the current Cuba team will be to that team, but working in Cuba’s favor in this rematch will be playing conditions in the Cayman Island that won’t be as good as the ones at Audi Field in Washington, where the Americans rolled to a seven-goal rout.
Berhalter isn’t about to let his team use that as an excuse.
“It’s going to be the same for both teams, and we have to be able to deal with that,” Berhalter said. “When you talk about navigating through qualification in Concacaf these are part of the elements that you have to be able to face.”
The USMNT understands the challenging awaiting on Tuesday, and as confident as the Americans are about being able to post the win they need to reach the Nations League semifinals, they also know it is a challenge they can’t afford to underestimate.
“There’s obviously expectation from everywhere that we’re going to blow them out of the water, but it’s not the case,” Yedlin told SBI. “It’s a very difficult situation. The first thing, you try to get a goal early. If you don’t do that then sometimes the anxiety can start to creep a bit. The main thing is stay in the game, stay calm, and I think we know we’re the better team, but we also have to realize it’s not going to be perfect.”