MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica – Cuba’s 9-1 loss to Mexico in its 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship opener on January 10 now seems like it occurred an eternity ago.
Such a lopsided setback would have deleterious consequences for many teams, but not on the Lions of the Caribbean. Since that day, the scorelines and results have taken a turn for the better, much better.
In its next three outings, Cuba fell to Honduras (3-0), drew Haiti (2-2) and beat Canada (2-1).
Head coach Willian Bennett never doubted that his squad would reveal its true identity.
“I said after the first game that Cuba wasn’t finished, we could improve,” said Bennett. “We weren’t finished and we keep fighting. One of the characteristics of our team is that we always keep fighting. I said this after the game against Haiti and against Haiti the team started to function.”
It most certainly did and the win over Canada kept its hopes alive of reaching the competition’s playoff phase, where it would have one more chance to secure a berth in a second straight FIFA U-20 World Cup. In order to do that, however, Cuba must beat El Salvador (1-2-1, 5 points) in its final Group B game on Thursday at the Montego Bay Sports Complex.
“This gives us a chance against El Salvador in the next match, to win that match and go on to the final day, which we will achieve,” expressed the confident Bennett. “We’re not going to let down the fans here in Jamaica, we won’t let the colleagues down.”
When Bennett was asked to what he attributes Cuba’s impressive improvement, the 64-year-old remarked, “I think the difference from the first game has just been getting in the rhythm of playing the matches. We had a very short camp, very short preparation and very few international games in getting ready for this tournament.
“It was very difficult to get the team in shape from a tactical point of view, but the team keeps getting better. The interesting thing is that the more difficult the games get, these are the games where the team really steps up and plays better.”
Facing a talented Salvadoran side will demand a total performance from the Cubans. Now is not the time to count them out.
“The team is taking a lot confidence now from these results,” Bennett finished. “These are results that have been really motivating for us going into the final day of group play.”