BALTIMORE -- On paper, the U.S. is expected to smash Cuba silly on Saturday in its Gold Cup quarterfinal at M&T Bank Stadium. After all, the visiting Cubans are the lowest-ranked opponent in the four tournament games for the U.S. so far -- and by some distance. The thin Cuban roster has been decimated by the defection of four players during its stay in the United States.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team aren't buying it. They know from experience that as long as both teams are able to field 11 players, what should happen in theory means nothing as soon as the first whistle blows.
The hosts were heavily favored in each of their first three matches, yet the U.S. wasn't close to dominant in any of them. The officiating at the Gold Cup has also been uneven at best. Add in the fact that the Cubans are physical, athletic and unpredictable, and the Americans have no choice but to approach with caution.
"You never know how a game will go," Klinsmann told reporters on Friday night. "Things can happen and suddenly, like two years ago, you go a goal down and things get a bit difficult."
Klinsmann was referring to the 2013 Gold Cup, when his side fell behind against Cuba before scoring four unanswered goals in a 4-1 win. The U.S. is hoping that by striking first this time, it can avoid having to chase the game.
"How we start is important because we don't want to give them any room to breathe, any space to play, run at us, any of that sort of thing," goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "We have to make sure that we're on the front foot."
But while the Americans will be mostly in control of their early intensity, they are powerless to prevent bad calls.
The U.S. ended up in a dogfight against Haiti in the group stage after Aron Johannsson's first-half strike was incorrectly flagged for offside. Then, in the group stage finale vs. Panama, Alejandro Bedoya was hacked down by the last defender on another potentially game-changing play. No foul was given.
"The calls haven't been in our favor," Bedoya said before training on Friday. "We have to be on our toes, because one bad call goes against us, they bunker and it's hard to break them down."
Issues have manifested off the field, too, in everything from making sure players have proper identification for boarding charter flights to providing water for players and coaches during news conferences. Not that organization has ever been CONCACAF's strong suit.
"I say this with total endearment: It's a ridiculous tournament," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said to guffaws on Friday. "Between the travel, the short turnaround between games, grass being laid over [artificial] turf, the weather -- it's a huge challenge.
"That's absolutely no excuse, because it's the same for everybody. That's not me complaining; that's just reality."
It's also reality that a win will take them into Wednesday's semifinal against either Haiti or Jamaica (who meet in the late game of Saturday's doubleheader) and one step closer to their ultimate goal.
"We are definitely the team to beat in this tournament," Klinsmann said. "But we obviously have to reconfirm it. The next game is the most difficult one."
• It sounds as though DaMarcus Beasley will step out of international retirement and straight into Klinsmann's starting lineup. The four-time World Cup vet, who announced the end of his U.S. career late last year, was one of three players added to the U.S. roster this week (along with Joe Corona and Alan Gordon), replacing youngster Greg Garza.
On Friday, the coach made it clear that Beasley wasn't summoned from the Houston Dynamo merely to be a cheerleader. "If Beas is coming back, he's not coming back to be on the bench," Klinsmann said, while also suggesting that some of the squad's younger members might not be thrilled to see Beasley take their minutes. But Bradley, for one, couldn't be happier.
"It's great to have DaMarcus back in every way," said Bradley, who has known the wiry lefty since his father, former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, coached a teenage Beasley at the Chicago Fire in the early 2000s. "He's somebody I've looked up to, and to be back on the same team with him is special. When he walks in the door, it's a lift for everybody and he's easy to play with. We can always use his quality on the field."
• Clint Dempsey wants to be a part of the national team for as long as possible, and the man who will ultimately determine whether that comes to pass apparently wants the same thing. Klinsmann said he hopes the 32-year-old Texan, whose three goals have him tied for the tournament scoring lead, will continue with the U.S. for many years to come.
"If he stays hungry, if he stays sharp and if he stays healthy, then we'll keep going," Klinsmann said. "Hopefully he continues to score goals for us in this Gold Cup, and with those goals hopefully we're going to win this Gold Cup."
• Bradley said that after playing three games in six days in the first round, having a five-day break ahead of the knockout stage was a godsend. "Getting here to Baltimore allowed everybody the chance to take a deep breath and recover physically and mentally," he said. "We're ready for a big quarterfinal knowing that, at the end of the day, we're going to do everything to put ourselves in the semifinal."
• Cuban coach Raul Gonzalez agrees with Klinsmann that the U.S. is the favorite to win it all. Still, his team is playing with house money after advancing to the knockout stage of a Gold Cup for the first time. Despite the defections, he is confident in his squad.
"We have 19 players, which I think is enough to play the game," Gonzalez said. "But we know we will have to be very focused defensively."