Count the U.S. men’s soccer team among the travelers affected by Hurricane Matthew. They flew from Miami to Havana on Wednesday night instead of Thursday to make sure they got there in time for Friday’s friendly against the Cuban national team.
The game (4 p.m., ESPN2, UniMas) will be played at 28,000-seat Estadio Pedro Marrero, which before the revolution was known affectionately as “La Tropical,” short for Gran Stadium Cerveceria Tropical.
It is the first friendly between the two teams in 69 years. The only time since 1947 that they played on Cuban soil was a World Cup qualifier in September 2008, which the U.S. team won 1-0. The Americans have a 9-1-1 record over the Cubans, including a 6-0 rout in the 2015 Gold Cup.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann called in a mixture of veteran and up-and-coming players. He is using this match, and an Oct. 11 friendly against New Zealand in Washington, D.C., to prepare for critical World Cup qualifiers in November against Mexico and Costa Rica.
“We’re very excited about this trip to Cuba because it’s going to be a wonderful experience for all of us, hopefully also for the people there to have opportunity to see our team play in their spot,” Klinsmann said. “We brought in a couple of players who were on the outside, some younger ones and this will give us a really good opportunity to have a closer look at those players.”
Among the newer players are midfielders Lyndon Gooch (Sunderland) and Perry Kitchen (Hearts), and goalkeepers David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Ethan Horvath (Molde FK), and William Yarbrough (Club Leon).
“We want to see them taking the initiative,” Klinsmann said. “We want them to come in here and make a very strong impression. I think a good example is Sacha Kljestan. In the last two World Cup qualifying games we told Sasha, ‘Listen, this is your opportunity, but you’ve got to take it.’ You’ve got to come in and make an impression and he did that in both games. A similar message to Danny Williams and other players. The door is always open.”
The main objective of the upcoming friendlies, and the camps in between, is to be ready for rival Mexico in November in Columbus, Ohio.
“The bigger picture is clear, it’s preparing for Mexico, for Nov. 11, so we gather as much info as possible about every player in order to make up our minds for that game,” Klinsmann said.
“It couldn’t get any better than starting with Mexico right away and then going to Costa Rica because you’re going to be put on your toes right away. We respect both teams a lot. So much respect for Mexican players, their coach, their soccer culture. But we’ve done tremendously well against them in recent years. It’s a huge clash.”
Although the team will be without Clint Dempsey, who is taking a break after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, they will have Jozy Altidore back at forward. He had been battling hamstring injuries, but is back in peak form.
Altidore, who grew up in Boca Raton, is excited to visit Cuba.
“It’s a historic moment, obviously with the history between the U.S. and Cuba, so to have the chance to be part of this match is really special,” he said. “I want to see what it’s like there. It’s a place I’ve never been.”
Klinsmann is happy to have Altidore back on the roster, and also eager to get a look at the Seattle Sounders’ Jordan Morris.
“Obviously, we’re thrilled to have Jozy back in the picture,” Klinsmann said. “We were missing him for quite some time with his hamstring injuries. We’re missing Clint Dempsey. At the same time, we’ve got to push the next generation. Jordan is one of our most promising forwards. So much upside with him.”