They might consider re-naming this year’s Gold Cup the Caribbean Cup.
For the first time in tournament history, four of the eight quarterfinalists in the biennial regional championship are from Caribbean islands — Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Traditional Central American power Honduras was eliminated as were Canada, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Cuba plays the United States at 5 p.m. Saturday in Baltimore (Fox, Univision), and Jamaica vs. Haiti follows at 8 p.m.
Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have had soccer success in the past, but Cuba and Haiti caught everyone by surprise. Haiti’s team is one of the most under-funded in the region, but has had a breakthrough this summer. Cuba advanced despite visa troubles and the defection of four players.
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Six Cuban players plus head coach Raul Gonzalez Triana missed their opening game against Mexico because they got stuck in Antigua with visa issues. Also, forward Keiler Garcia bolted from the team’s Chicago hotel during breakfast the morning of the match. Mexico won 6-0.
Goalkeeper Arael Arguellez left the Cuban team after the Mexico match, midfielder Dario Suarez defected after the second game in Charlotte, and a fourth player, Aricheel Hernandez, missed the team’s third game and is presumed to be seeking political asylum, as well.
It is not unusual for the Cuban team to lose players during the tournament. Six players deserted the team during the 2013 Gold Cup.
“From the moment we landed in Chicago, I felt I had to defect,” Suarez said in an interview with CNN Latino’s Maria Elvira. “I feel bad about leaving my teammates, and I ask for their forgiveness, but I wanted another path for my life.”
Garcia left his mother, brother, and wife and two children back in Cuba. He said he hopes to join a Major League Soccer team to be able to support his family.
Asked his opinion of the warming relations between the United States and Cuba, he said: “I hope the changes will lead to friendlier relations, but I couldn’t wait. I had the opportunity to stay in this country, and wasn’t going to pass it up.”
Garcia had contacted a friend in advance, and when he saw the hotel door open, he went out onto the street and started running until he met up with his friend. A few days later, he was in Miami beginning his new life.
Despite the defections and losing its first two games by a combined score of 8-0, Cuba (1-2-0) managed to advance after beating Guatemala 1-0.
Cuba’s minus-seven goal differential is the worst for a quarterfinalist in Gold Cup history. The previous worst was minus-two by Trinidad and Tobago in 2000 and Cuba in 2013.
The Cubans enter Saturday’s match as underdogs against tournament favorite Team USA, which won its group with a 2-0-1 record. The U.S. team has won its past eight games against Cuba, including a 4-1 victory in the 2013 Gold Cup.
In Haiti, where soccer fanatics tend to be more supportive of foreign teams like Argentina and Brazil, the Haitian national team’s performance in the Gold Cup is sparking conversion — and debate. On the streets, in tent camps and at public plazas, where young men routinely kick around soccer balls, Haitians are debating if their team can beat Jamaica.
For most it’s a resounding “yes,” and a chance for revenge after Jamaica, which hosted the Digicel Caribbean Cup last year, defeated Haiti. As Haitians prepare to crowd bars and sidewalk kiosks Saturday, they are talking about their team in the same breath as rivals, Jamaica and Trinidad.
“You get the impression that the team’s performance is like a serum, a medicine,” said Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haitian Football Federation. “We may have a lot of problems in Haiti, but I think we are a huge football country. We have the passion…football is the only factor that unites all Haitians whether they are rich, white or mulato, or poor, it’s the same love.
“Haiti is last in all of the world statistics, but in football, we fight not to be last.”
Trinidad and Tobago, which plays Panama Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J., won its group over Mexico after a thrilling 4-4 tie with the Mexicans, who led 2-0 after 55 minutes.
Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.