U.S. makes hard work of subduing Cuba, as Wondolowski secures 2-0 win
Playing a rare friendly in the island nation of Cuba, the U.S. men's national team secured a 2-0 victory over the hosts. Second-half goals from substitute Chris Wondolowski and Julian Green proved to be the difference for the visitors. That said, the U.S. had to sweat some nervy moments on the defensive end, as Cuba twice hit the woodwork.
Here are three thoughts on an inconsistent performance:
1. U.S. made hard work of subduing Cuba
Let's be clear: The last time the U.S. had played a friendly in Cuba was 1947, which -- based on appearances -- might be the last time the surface at the Estadio Pedro Marrero was tended. Playing on the moon might have been easier. Given the lack of stakes involved, it's also understandable that there was a heavy emphasis on injury avoidance. It raises the question: Aside from the chance for the two countries to take another diplomatic step forward, why was this game played?
That said, it's not unreasonable to have expected more from this performance. Outside of goalkeeper Ethan Horvath -- who was making his international debut -- and Green, the rest of the lineup fielded by manager Jurgen Klinsmann will likely take the field on Nov. 11 in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico. Yet the U.S. showed little urgency in the first half. If the field conditions are so bad, why not do more to take Cuba out of its game and crank up the defensive pressure?
Cuba certainly enjoyed the time afforded it on the ball, and had the team's forwards displayed a tad more patience in terms of timing runs, they might of done more to threaten the U.S. goal. As it was, Cuba did create a good chance in the 35th minute, with Horvath making a somewhat awkward save. Cuba came even closer in the second half, with Maykel Reyes and Roberney Caballero both hitting the post.
After squandering a couple of decent chances in the first half, the U.S. was more proficient in the second, and the half-time introduction of Wondolowski added a bit more offensive punch. He fired home from a rebound of a Green shot in the 62nd minute, and he turned provider nine minutes later, as his centering feed was side-footed home by the Bayern Munich attacker.
2. Green, Horvath, Wondolowski make their cases
Green was probably the biggest surprise in terms of Klinsmann's lineup, yet he did plenty to help his cause, despite being well short of match practice. Green showed good aggressiveness when he was on the ball, and many of the best U.S. chances went through him. In the first half, he used his dribbling ability to create clear shooting opportunities for himself. His best opportunity in the opening period came in the 24th minute, but his shot was well-saved by Cuba goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez.
Green then did plenty of heavy lifting in the run-up to Wondolowski's goal, taking on his defender, cutting inside and forcing another save from Sanchez that Wondolowski duly pounced on for the game's first goal. His goal in the 71st minute -- tapping home Wondolowski's pass -- was just reward for a solid day's work.
Will Green keep his spot on Tuesday against New Zealand? That seems likely, but it's also important not to get carried away. This is one good performance, and now it's important for the 21-year-old to do what he can to build on this match.
Horvath showed good judgment on when to stay home and when to come off his line to defuse some potentially dangerous situations. He also did well to save Arichel Hernandez's first-half effort, and overall, he looked composed, even as Cuba threatened his goal.
Wondolowski's continued inclusion still is dividing opinion, but there can be no denying that he enjoyed a fine day. To be clear, his role remains transitional, in that he is there to set an example for the younger members of the squad. And his ability to grind was certainly on display in this match. One would expect Jordan Morris to continue to get minutes in the next match against New Zealand.
3. Bring on Tuesday night
It's likely that Klinsmann won't spend much time going over the game tape from this match, given the terrible surface and low-profile opponent. That said, the U.S. manager will be concerned by how vulnerable his side was in transition and how stretched the U.S. looked at times.
Christian Pulisic will also be eager to forget this match, as the young attacker got a rough lesson of what life on the road in CONCACAF is like. There were a few instances where the technically sound Pulisic struggled to control the ball, and he couldn't prevent it from going out of bounds. He was also the target of some heavy challenges from Cuban defenders. He was taken off at half-time for his own protection, as much as anything.
At club level he has shown an ability to bounce back from rough outings. Now we'll see if he can do the same for the U.S.
Without question, Tuesday's match against New Zealand at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., will provide the U.S. with a surface that should allow it to enjoy more possession. But in the wake of this match, the Americans know that they can't take anything for granted.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.