There is part of me that is very excited to see the United States head to Cuba for a soccer friendly for the first time since 1947.
I have long thought that Cuba can and should be a force in CONCACAF, or at the very least the Caribbean, however there are political reasons for why this hasn't happened. Our good friend and resident Cuban soccer expert Brendan Doherty summed up a lot of this for Stars and Stripes FC yesterday, and you should take the time to read that article, it's brilliant.
But what the US is left to play for later this afternoon isn't much. Cuba is not a good soccer team right now, having already been eliminated from not only the 2018 World Cup qualifying (away goal aggregate loss to Curacao) but also a third place finish due to goal difference also saw them exit qualifying for the 2017 Caribbean Cup in the first group phase.
Cuba right now is a mess, and that's being probably kind. This is not the same team that qualified for The Hex during the 2010 World Cup cycle or even the same team that won the Caribbean Cup back in 2012. Their last meaningful win came against Guatemala in last summer's Gold Cup before they were routed by the USA 6-0 in the quarterfinals.
This game, as well as the friendly with New Zealand in a few days, is really about sorting out some depth options and giving the youth a chance to get serious minutes. So there are three positions that we should be focused on for the USA during this international break.
Somewhere Paul Carr has probably tweeted when the last time the USMNT roster didn't have Tim Howard or Brad Guzan on it. But right now you're looking at arguably the future #1 keeper in Ethan Horvath who I would expect to make his senior international debut at some point and possibly even today. Horvath has been a stud for both his club team Molde (Norway) and the US U-23 team that failed to qualify for the Olympics William Yarbrough and David Bingham are in my opinion fighting for the "Nick Rimando" role, the veteran backup keeper who will be third on the depth chart. Bingham's rise in MLS could give him the edge here, and he's also a year younger than Yarbrough, but I'd expect Bill Hamid's name to get more of a look here when he's not in the playoffs and if he can stay healthy. Howard, Guzan and Rimando aren't getting any younger but thankfully the USA will never run out of talented goalkeepers.
Michael Bradley is still searching for that midfield partner in the 4-2-3-1 formation the USMNT isn't even using right now. Sacha Kljestan should partner with Bradley in the diamond again though I'd expect to see a lot of changes in both of these games as far as subs and formations. But in the meantime I'm more than excited to see Perry Kitchen, recently named captain of his new club Hearts in Scotland. Danny Williams is also a candidate to see some serious minutes and it wouldn't shock me to see both of them partnered up late in a game as holding midfielders.
Julian Green, Paul Arriola, Christian Pulisic - the USMNT is somehow overflowing with young talent at this position though currently it's difficult to get all of them on the field at once. With the US playing two strikers, that means one less holding mid and instead of true wingers more of a box-to-box type effort from the wide players in midfield. Certainly everyone here can preform in those roles so it will be interesting to see who gets the start and where. Obviously Christian Pulisic seems like a lock at this point in one of the outside mid roles, Arriola scores every time he puts on the US shirt and Julian Green did that thing against Belgium in the World Cup. I'm not sure there's a wrong answer here, but it's up to Klinsmann to find the best combination with Kljestan in the middle and Jozy and Wood up top.
PROJECTED USMNT LINEUP
Horvath; F. Johnson, Brooks, Cameron, Yedlin; Pulisic, Bradley, Kljestan, Arriola; Wood, Altidore
The only spot I'm not 100% certain about is Arriola, everyone else you can argue is a first team starter despite the fact Horvath would be making his senior debut in this one. This is a good lineup though I'd expect wholesale changes at either halftime or early second half.
Ozzie Alonso isn't walking through that door. And even if he did, Cuba would still probably be bad at soccer. Another wave of defections last summer at the Gold Cup have crippled this team, with the biggest name in Ariel Martinez now playing in NASL for Miami FC. The roster is almost completely comprised of domestic players, though there are a few who have been granted permission to play abroad, including Maikel Reyes and Abel Martinez who play in Mexico as well as Daniel Luis who plays with second division French side AC Ajaccio.
Going back to Brendan Doherty's article, the Cuban federation is a disaster at the moment, though it seems that some of the field issues have cleared up.
One more quick look at the pitch. The grass itself was fine. pic.twitter.com/wy6Bfi9zk6— Arielle Castillo (@ariellec) October 6, 2016
Still, there seems to be a lot more the US can lose in this game with injuries than they can gain. However, with The Hex starting off against Mexico next month, these next two games for the USMNT will help build and maintain the chemistry and momentum they built during the qualifying cycle and they have to make the most of it.
The USA and Cuba will kickoff later today at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana with coverage beginning on ESPN2 at 4pm EST.