By Dylan Butler
ATLANTA – Cuba sensed that its CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal task would be made more difficult when central defender Jorge Luis Clavelo, a standout during the Group Stage, was ruled out of the contest with an injury.
It was just the first of what would be a concurrence of events that led to a 6-1 loss to Panama Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
“Unfortunately we made some mistakes, but we did not deserve 6-1,” Cuban coach Walter Benitez said. “There were some deficiencies in the defense. Like I said, we had to open up, look for goals since we didn’t have other options but to go forward.”
The match started out positively enough for Cuba, which took a 1-0 lead through a sliding Jose Ciprian Alfonso in the 21st minute, following Jaine Colome Valencia’s chip into the box.
The good feelings from that goal, though, diminished by halftime. Panama was awarded a penalty kick after defender Renay Malblanche was ruled to have handled a shot by Marcos Sanchez inside the box.
Gabriel Torres converted from the spot in the 25th minute and added a second 12 minutes later to give Panama a 2-1 heading into the break.
“Yesterday, I said Panama is a team that continues to grow a lot on a very high level,” Benitez said. “We have to continue to take bigger steps so we can face them. I think it would have been a different game if the PK didn’t happen.”
The Cubans received an additional setback in the 58th minute, when Ariel Martinez -- the team’s leading scorer during the competition -- was shown a straight red card for a foul against Panama’s Blas Perez during a midfield challenge.
Down a man and a goal, Benitez was forced to change tactics and push numbers in the attack. The result was four unanswered Panamanian goals in the final 22 minutes.
“I didn’t expect a scoreline like this,” Benitez said. “I knew the team was going to be become a bit weakened because of the fact we had to open up because of being a man down and what that means to the players.”
Despite the disappointing end of the tournament, Benitez was encouraged by his team’s play. After losing to Costa Rica and the United States, Cuba defeated Belize, 4-0, in its final match of the group stage to reach the quarterfinals for the second time.
Cuba needed the four-goal victory to bump Martinique as the second-best third-place finisher. It was the largest ever victory recorded by a team to overcome a deficit and quality for the knockout stage.
“I’m very happy with my group because they fought, they did not give up or stop playing their soccer,” Benitez said. “That’s what I take away with me. I’m always going to thankful to the players for keeping the strategy of playing.”
And Benitez hopes that continues beyond the Gold Cup.
“I think we must continue to work,” Benitez said. “We have to improve and keep growing, with better preparation and play more games. … There’s always a tomorrow in soccer and that’s what matters.”