The United States will be heavily favored in today's Gold Cup quarterfinal against Cuba. The reputations of the two countries in the soccer world would lend that expectation anyway, but in this competition the gap has been made clear. The USMNT has actually played quite poorly compared to what they're capable of doing, yet took 7 points from the (on paper, anyway) most difficult group of the three. Cuba, meanwhile, finished 3rd in Group C on a -7 goal difference; their only goal was the shock game-winner against Guatemala that saw them edge El Salvador out as the second-best team to finish 3rd in the group stage.
The US squad is made of professionals from the best leagues in this region as well as in Europe; Cuba's team is entirely from their domestic league, and they've seen four players leave the squad in order to defect to the US. As such, it's safe to say that Jurgen Klinsmann's squad is expecting to spend 90 minutes trying to pry open a bunkering Leones del Caribe. Unlike the occasional pressure from Honduras or the counter-attacking raids from Haiti, this game is likely to be almost entirely played in the Cuban half.
Key player: Clint Dempsey
When you face a bunker, your most clever players need to be at their best. Cuba will likely try to swarm Michael Bradley after watching Honduras and Haiti get some results with that tactic, so the creative burden will often fall to someone else. While players like Alejandro Bedoya and Gyasi Zardes could help in that department, the heaviest weight will be shouldered by Dempsey.
What the USMNT needs out of Dempsey today is for him to be his audacious, experimental self while still getting into good goalscoring positions. If we see Dempsey dropping too deep to pick up possession, it means the US's best goal threat is somewhere other than inside the box. Dempsey will need to resist that temptation in order to be the most dangerous version of himself he can be. Cuba will likely drop 10 behind the ball at all times, so Dempsey's trickery is going to be required for the US to pick the lock.
Key question: Is this all the USMNT is capable of?
Thus far, the US's Gold Cup has been littered with stagnant play off the ball and defensive errors (particularly on the right side, where Timothy Chandler and Ventura Alvarado have been very poor). The US remains undefeated solely due to having higher quality attackers who can put together the occasional big play. The other 3 teams in Group A combined had one player (Andy Najar) capable of challenging for a starting spot in the US midfield or attack, and it showed on the scoreboard.
CONCACAF is ugly and dirty, of course, but by now every USMNT player has seen the massed defenses, the playacting, the time-wasting, and the provocation. At some point, this group and this coach need to be able to dominate a game against clearly inferior opposition. If not Cuba - who a very lackluster Mexico crushed 6-0 in the group stage - then who?
Match date/time: Saturday 7/18, 5:00pm Eastern
Venue: M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore, MD)
TV: Fox (English), Univision (Spanish), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), Univision Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.