Gregg Berhalter's United States can close out 2019 with a bit of momentum
The journey taken by the United States men's national team during 2019 has had a few stumbles.
There was the Gold Cup final defeat to Mexico, as well as last month's CONCACAF Nations League defeat to Canada, the U.S. team's first loss to its northern neighbor in 34 years. The question of what the Americans' preferred style is -- and how various players should be placed within it -- remains open.
Yet with one game remaining in 2019, the U.S. is poised to achieve one of its goals. Thanks to Friday's 4-1 win over Canada in the return fixture, a win by any margin against Cuba on Tuesday will be enough for the Americans to progress to the semifinals of the Nations League next summer.
The outcome of this match seems a foregone conclusion, as the U.S. blew away Cuba last month 7-0, with Weston McKennie notching a hat trick. In this encounter, Cuba is an even bigger underdog than it normally is. According to research complied by ESPN's Tom Marshall, the Lions of the Caribbean have lost 10 senior players to defections in the past year and 29 players from all age groups. Cutting away that much talent ought to be a death blow for just about any international program. Frankly, it's amazing that Cuba has made it this far.
Tilting the scales even more in the U.S.'s favor is the fact that the match will be played at the Truman Bodden Sports Complex in George Town, Cayman Islands, instead of Havana due to problems with Cuba's home stadium. Cuba has managed some relative success of late, securing a 0-0 tie and a 1-0 win in two friendlies with Nicaragua, both on the road, but that has done little to alter the thinking that the U.S. is a heavy favorite.
Granted, if the past two years have revealed anything about the U.S. side, it's that nothing can be assumed, be it the performance of the team or the individuals within it. The pain from the World Cup qualifying failure, which included a last-day defeat to what was basically a Trinidad & Tobago reserve side, can still be felt, even if the level of discomfort isn't as intense and present as it once was. Since then, inconsistency has been the rule, not the exception, for this U.S. side.
That's why U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter, usually inclined to assume a positive outlook on things, isn't taking anything for granted when it comes to Tuesday's match.
"We haven't done anything yet, right? We had an objective to go to the next round. We're not in the next round yet," he said Friday.
To that end, one can expect a few changes to Berhalter's lineup, but one player who has done plenty to maintain his spot in the starting XI is Jordan Morris. The Seattle winger, fresh off his triumph at MLS Cup, contributed a goal and an assist against Canada, giving him three goals and a team-leading six assists for the U.S. in 2019.
"[I'm] feeling great, and obviously, it was a super special moment in Seattle," Morris said after Friday's win. "That game was amazing to win in front [of] those fans. It's hard to put into words, you know, but coming in here, the whole focus was on this game first, and I thought it was a great team performance. And the message in the locker room was that we have one more to go."
In terms of lineup alterations, it would make sense for the likes of Newcastle United's DeAndre Yedlin, Werder Bremen's Josh Sargent and Fortuna Dusseldorf's Alfredo Morales to get some minutes, if for no other reason than the distance traveled. Morales in particular possesses the kind of nastiness that could prove valuable down the road.
The U.S. will need to show some patience against a Cuba side that is likely to bunker in, at least at the start of the match. For that reason, the creativity of a Sebastian Lletget, who showed well against Canada, could also be useful. But the U.S. should cruise no matter whom Berhalter puts on the field.
The U.S. players gained some confidence from Friday's result. Closing the deal against Cuba with a resounding win will allow the squad to finish 2019 with a bit of momentum.