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U.S. vs. Mexico: Has the rivalry lost some bite?

U.S. vs. Mexico
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W2W4: U.S. must get more creative vs. Mexico

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Finally back in the fold, Kljestan is seizing his opportunity with the U.S.

MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- Sacha Kljestan's last trip to Cuba made a lasting impression.

It was just over eight years ago that the U.S. traveled to the island nation for a World Cup qualifier in the semifinal round. Kljestan recalled that the U.S. prevailed 1-0 on a Clint Dempsey goal. But what the New York Red Bulls midfielder saw around the game was burned into his memory as well.

"Things are different down in Cuba; you see all the cars from the 1950s, and stuff like that," he said prior to Monday's practice session at Barry University. "It's a different period ... the most important thing was we got three points."

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Kljestan remembered that there was a small contingent of U.S. fans in attendance, no small feat given the fact that the two countries wouldn't restore diplomatic relations for another seven years.

"They all had scarves over their faces," said Kljestan about the U.S. fans. "It was pretty cool. It was fun to see that some Americans made it down there last time. I'm assuming there's going to be quite a few more this time."

There will indeed. The two teams will square off this Friday, the first time the U.S. has played a friendly in Cuba since 1947. But while the overall stakes are lower, there is still plenty on the line for the U.S. at least in terms of individual performances.

The U.S. is gearing up for the start of the final round of World Cup qualifying, with matches against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 11 and away to Costa Rica four days later quickly approaching. That means Friday's game -- assuming it isn't adversely impacted by Hurricane Matthew -- and a subsequent friendly against New Zealand in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 11 will provide the final chances to impress manager Jurgen Klinsmann prior to the start of the Hexagonal.

Kljestan knows more than anyone that the door to the national team is never truly shut. Last month, he was recalled to the U.S. team for the first time in two-and-a-half years, and did plenty to impress Klinsmann, grabbing a goal and two assists against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and scoring the first goal in a 4-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago.

"I came in with a fire under my ass, and I just wanted to prove everything, to prove everybody wrong, prove everybody right, to do everything that I was good at to help the team win," he told reporters. "Fortunately I was able to do that. I'm glad that Jurgen gave me the chance. I know there are going to be other guys coming in to do the same thing now. Just because I played a couple of good games last month doesn't mean that I can take it for granted now. I'm here this month to prove my case again."

Sacha Kljestan scored the opener for the U.S. in a win against Trinidad and Tobago.
With Clint Dempsey sidelined, Sacha Kljestan figures to be a crucial player in midfield for the U.S. during the Hex.

Kljestan's quest is aided by the continued absences of Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey. Jones continues to deal with a nagging knee injury, while Dempsey has been shut down for the rest of the calendar year due to an irregular heartbeat. 

"Not having [Dempsey] here, we miss a big part of the attack," said Kljestan. "Hopefully I can step in and fill his shoes."

Among the players looking to challenge Kljestan's spot in the center of midfield are Perry Kitchen and Danny Williams, though Kljestan's ability to threaten in the attacking third makes him a better candidate to partner with Michael Bradley in the center of midfield. For that reason, he's hoping that he and the team can build on last month's performances.

"Hopefully we get a couple of wins this week and it gives us good motivation and good confidence going into November."

And the chance to make some new memories in Cuba.

Notes:  

--The U.S. announced that Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya suffered a strained rib muscle in last weekend's 3-2 defeat to the New York Red Bulls, and therefore wouldn't join up with the national team for the friendly against Cuba. While it is expected that some roster changes will be made between the Cuba and New Zealand games, a U.S. soccer spokesman said that no replacement would be named for Bedoya.

-- Friday's match appears set to take place in the aftermath of a hurricane striking the eastern part of Cuba. According to Weather.com, Hurricane Matthew, which is presently a Category 4 storm (Category 5 is the most severe), is forecast to make landfall in Cuba some time Tuesday morning. Havana sits in the northwest part of the island, and it's unclear the extent to which the city and the rest of the island will be affected. A U.S. Soccer Federation spokesperson would only state that the USSF is monitoring the situation closely.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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