When U.S. men's national team manager Bob Bradley announced his roster for World Cup qualifiers against Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago, the inclusion of talents like Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, and Francisco Torres set off visions that Bradley would shed his conservative tendencies and give his young studs a chance. While that will eventually come to pass, the focus of Saturday's tilt against Cuba (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic) will be on how the veterans perform.
Sure, a player like Torres may see some playing time this weekend, if for no other reason than to cap-tie the Texan to the U.S. once and for all, and fend off the advances of Mexico. But Saturday's starting XI will likely be similar -- if not identical -- to the one used a month ago against T&T.
The veterans' mission is twofold. The first, of course, is to win. Three victories in as many games have put the U.S. atop CONCACAF's Group 1, and a win Saturday will guarantee the Americans safe passage to next year's final round hexagonal.
Yet while the result is still king, it's also important to win well, especially for Bradley's core group of players. If all goes according to plan for the U.S. on Saturday, and progress to the hex is assured, expect Bradley to release many of his veteran performers back to their clubs, at which point his crop of young players will be given their chance to shine in this round's two remaining qualifiers.
It means the Cuba match will be the last opportunity in 2008 for many players to impress, and even for established performers like defender Carlos Bocanegra, it's important to finish on a high note.
"You always have to play for your spot," said Bocanegra. "It's the national team, and someone is always trying to take your position. There's no room to slack, ever."
Given the talent that is waiting in the wings, as well as the offensive inconsistency the U.S. has shown, that is especially true of players on the attacking side of the ball. It's safe to say a cohesive attack hasn't always been evident during this round of qualifying, with the offensive nadir being reached in the team's previous encounter against Cuba on Sept. 6. On that day, the U.S. prevailed in Havana 1-0, but it wasn't easy on the eyes. The passing was shocking at times, and it took a few fortuitous bounces, as well as some heads-up plays by Brian Ching, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard to escape with a win.
Explanations for such a lackluster display were abundant. The bumpy field, the poor lighting, and the rainy weather were excuses that were all trotted out by the players to a skeptical public. The team's subsequent 3-0 dismantling of T&T four days later gave some traction to those rationalizations, but that was just one game. Delivering a similar performance against Cuba will provide more ammunition that the first encounter -- and not the T&T game -- was the exception rather than the rule.
"I think if we move the ball quickly like we did [against T&T], I don't think Cuba are going to be able to stay with us and mentally focus for an entire 90 minutes at that pace," said forward Brian Ching. "Just our movement off the ball ... will create a lot of problems for their defenders just staying with runners, staying organized. I think that's going to open up a lot of gaps for us to attack."
Saturday's game certainly has all the makings of a blowout for the Americans. Even if Cuba takes a cautious approach, the Americans have shown in their recent home matches a greater ability to break down bunker defenses. Not only does Cuba currently lie at the foot of the Group 1 table with no points to show for their three games, but forward Roberto Linares, one of the few attacking threats the Leones del Caribe possess, is suspended after being ejected in his team's 4-1 loss to Guatemala.
Cuban midfielder Alain Cervantes is one player who impressed during the match in Havana, and Leonel Duarte will likely assume more of the goal-scoring burden in the absence of Linares. But there just isn't enough quality in Cuba's team for them to really trouble a U.S. defense that has yet to concede a goal in World Cup qualifying.
"We're not going to be looking too much at Cuba for this game," said Bocanegra. "We'll watch a bit of video on them, but more so we need to concentrate on ourselves, imposing our game on them."
That way, Bradley's core group can take a well-earned rest from national team duty, and arguably the most talented generation of players that the U.S. has ever produced can begin to prove their mettle on the international stage.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. Cuba
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic
U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium; Port of Spain, Trinidad
8 p.m. ET, ESPN