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Guatemala feeds off crowd energy, beats Cuba 1-0 to take Gold Cup Group D lead

A heavy police presence awaited soccer fans at DRV PNK Stadium Tuesday night for the Gold Cup game between Cuba and Guatemala, but it turned out to be a friendly atmosphere for Guatemala’s 1-0 victory, which gave “Los Chapines” the Group D lead after the first round of the group stage.

Unlike the World Baseball Classic a few months ago at Loan Depot Park, which drew anti-Cuba protestors and field invaders, Gold Cup fans left politics aside and focused on the Group D matchup. There were no “Libertad!” chants during the Cuban soccer team’s first-ever South Florida appearance. Only chats of “Si Se Puede!”

It was clear from the number of sky blue and white flags fluttering from cars on I-95 that nearly the entire stadium would be rooting for Guatemala, with just a smattering of Cuban fans and flags. The crowd was announced at 12,990, but it looked like at least 16,000 with the stands nearly packed.

“We knew this was a big game we needed to win, and it was a beautiful thing, very emotional, to hear all the Guatemaltecas in the stands singing the national anthem with us,” said Guatemala coach Luis Fernando Tena. “Every time we play in the United States we draw big crowds, and our players feel the support and it inspires them.”

The Guatemalans erupted in the 48th minute, when Darwin Lom, returning from a long injury break, collected a through ball from Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and broke open a scoreless game with a right footed shot from the right side of the box into the bottom left corner. That was the lone goal of the night, and it was all Guatemala needed to take the Group D lead after Canada and Guadeloupe tied 2-2 in the earlier game in Toronto.

It was sweet redemption for Lom, who had failed to convert a penalty kick just before the first-half whistle. His teammate Carlos Mejia drew a foul in the box in first-half extra time. It was reviewed by VAR and deemed worthy of a PK. Lom aimed a right-footed shot to the bottom right corner, but Cuban goalkeeper Raiko Arozarena, who plays for the Tampa Bay Rowdies got his fingertips on it and knocked it away.

Arozarena stood out, making several big saves.

“He is a keeper of super high quality,” said Cuban coach Pablo Sanchez. “He gives a lot of life and energy to his teammates, stimulates them.”

Once upon a time, a Cuban team playing in the United States would invariably end up with multiple defections, but this Cuban Gold Cup team is made up largely of foreign based players. In addition to Arozarena, U.S. based Cuban starters included defender Modesto Mendez (Inter Miami II) and Jorge Corrales (FC Tulsa).

Other Cuban starters play professionally in Finland, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Gibraltar. The only starter based in Cuba is defender Neisser Sando, who plays for FC Cienfuegos.

One player missing from the game was Mendez’s Inter Miami II teammate Dairon Reyes. The Cuban team held up Reyes’ No. 10 jersey during the team introductions.

It was Cuba’s 11th appearance in the Gold Cup and first since 2019 after missing the 2021 tournament with visa issues. Guatemala leads the all-time series with 10 wins, four losses and three ties, while outscoring the Cubans 20-9.

Guatemala’s next game is against Canada on Saturday. Tena expects a tougher game and feels the group is so tight that it will come down to the third and final match day.

“It was a surprise to see Guadeloupe tie Canada, the four teams are very even,” Tena said. “The Caribbean teams have improved a lot and it has shown in their results, which helps elevate the level of the whole tournament.”

The Cuban team did not live up to expectations, Sanchez said.

“We didn’t fulfill what we came here to do,” he said. “We prepared for this game, knew it would be a tough one, but we were not able to overcome Guatemala’s strengths.

Despite the loss, the Cuban fans who showed up were proud to be there.

Cathy DeLeon was born in Key West to Cuban immigrants and traveled from Naples to watch to game with her Guatemalan husband of 24 years, Benedicto. She wore a giant Cuban flag wrapped around her shoulders and he wore the Guatemalan flag.

“He comes to see his, so I come to support mine, too,” she said. “I had never seen Cuba play any sport, so this is a big deal.”

One of the youngest Cuban fans was two-year-old Benjamin Guerra of West Palm Beach. His father, Fernando Sanchez, is Uruguayan and his mother, Catherine Guerra, was born in Cuba and moved to South Florida when she was two months old. Benjamin wore a Cuba jersey to the stadium.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Cuba play anything in the U.S., so it’s exciting that we’re being represented after all our history,” said Guerra, 28. “We want to get Benjamin to see his Cuban roots.”