By Dylan Butler
SANDY, Utah – Cuba is looking forward to Saturday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup clash against the United States at Rio Tinto Stadium for multiple reasons as soccer’s development at all levels on the island becomes increasingly apparent.
“There’s always been a sporting rivalry (between Cuba and the U.S.), but it’s nothing political,” Cuban head coach Walter Benitez said before his team’s training session on Friday. “Everything around soccer and whatever soccer generates, everything is positive.”
Cuba enters the match well rested, which wasn’t the case for its opener against Costa Rica Tuesday night in Portland. The team arrived only a day before the game, impacting its preparation.
“I think what also affected us in the first match was that we arrived too close to the game so we were tired,” Cuban defender Jorge Luis Clavelo said. “I think for this match we need more movement tactically and take advantage of any opportunity that we get so that we can score.”
After a scoreless first half, Costa Rica struck for three goals in the second half at JELD-WEN Field.
“We had a long flight, very tiring,” Cuban defender Renay Malblanche said. “We didn’t have enough time to recuperate from the travel. It was one of the factors of the second half performance in Portland.”
The Cubans arrived in Salt Lake City Wednesday afternoon and believe physically and tactically they are better prepared for the challenge of facing the United States.
“We’ve transitioned,” Malblanche said. “We’ve analyzed the things we’ve done bad in the first game and now we’re going to overcome those challenges in this match.”
Benitez said this high-profile match against the United States, as well as the rest of the Gold Cup, is a positive for Cuban soccer. There’s more awareness of the sport in the country, both from the national team’s success as well as internationally with UEFA Champions League matches televised in the country.
“It is doing so well because anything we get through television, through communication, through media, we see a lot of soccer and the country is talking about soccer a lot,” Benitez said. “This will definitely help us improve and get that highlighted.”
Benitez said there’s a national center in Cuba that helps identify younger players. He’s hoping to have some symmetry between the team that’s here for the Gold Cup and the squad that just competed in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. While his goal is to reach the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup for a second time, Benitez said the post-Gold Cup plan is to hopefully arrange more international friendlies.
For Cuba, the more soccer, the better.
“At this time, there’s a good soccer ambiance in Cuba,” Benitez said. “You have kids playing on the corners, in the street. It’s taking a great amount of space. Baseball has competition now because we’re winning more space in the community. That’s very important for us because we have to take advantage of any opportunity to keep developing.”
“Right now,” he added, “soccer is in good health.”