Youthful Cuba motivated for Panama clash
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Cuba (pictured) trains at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City, Panama, on January 7, 2016, in advance of its Copa America Centenario play-in match against the host nation. (Photo: Mexsport)

PANAMA CITY, Panama – The magnitude of participating in the 2016 Copa America Centenario is not lost on Cuba head coach Raul Gonzalez. 

His team had two previous opportunities to earn automatic qualification into the competition, but it failed to repeat as the Caribbean Cup champion in 2014 and it was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. 

A third route will be available to the Lions of the Caribbean on Friday, when they visit Panama in one of two Copa America Centenario play-in matches at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez. 

“We have come here for a very important match,” said Cuba head coach Raul Gonzalez at a Thursday press conference. “For us, we are very motivated for this match. I think it is going to be a very interesting match, where the two national teams are going to put everything they have on the field.” 

Gonzalez has brought a decidedly young squad to Central America with 14 players on the 23-man roster born in 1993 or later, including 17-year-old Eduard Puga. The midfielder played every minute of Cuba’s five games at the 2015 CONCACAF Under-17 Championship, scoring two of his team’s four goals. 

Others, such as forwards Maikel Reyes, who scored against Guatemala in July’s Gold Cup, and Aricheel Hernandez, as well as defender Adrian Arturo Diz Pe, played featured roles in the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup. 

“We have a very young squad, but one that is very competitive and has achieved important things for our country’s football,” Gonzalez remarked. “We hope that they continue achieving important things.” 

Midfielder Daniel Luis Saez – another member of that 2013 U-20 World Cup side – agreed that a win over Panama for a place in the 16-team Copa America field would certainly qualify as momentous. 

“It is an important match for all of us, a vital match,” the 21-year-old expressed. “It is for a Copa America, so we are very locked in mentally. It is a young team, but very ambitious and that is very important. This is why we are working hard.”