USMNT gets a needed win in rout of Cuba, but the new Nations League gets tougher from here

Doug McIntyre

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The scoreboard at Audi field read 4-0 to the United States by the time the Americans’ CONCACAF Nations League opener against overmatched Cuba was a dozen minutes old. By the time the final whistle sounded, the USMNT had run out 7-0 winners, with Weston McKennie making history by notching the fastest known hat trick in the program’s 106-year history and Jordan Morris Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic also scoring. (Cuban defender Dario Ramos Morales added an own goal.)

McKennie put the hosts in front after just 31 seconds off a low cross from Morris:

He added another off a nearly identical play moments later before setting Morris for the third inside 10 minutes:

And at that point, the rout was officially on.

Despite the visitors lack of resistance — the Cuban program has been decimated by more than 20 defections over the last year alone— it was a badly needed win for the Americans, and not because the U.S. needs to ensure its place in the final round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup next year. Like CONCACAF top dog Mexico, the No. 2-ranked Americans are virtually guaranteed to make the six team cut. But after losing consecutive matches to El Tri and tying powerful Uruguay in its last outing, Friday’s victory should give Gregg Berhalter’s side a much-needed confidence boost ahead of Tuesday’s significantly more difficult tilt against desperate Canada in Toronto.

The Nations League has no shortage of detractors, for obvious reasons. The new competition, modeled on Europe’s tournament of the same name, replaces the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying — a six game slog with little margin for error that both Mexico and the U.S. have struggled through in cycles past. The ease with which the hosts dispatched Cuba only reinforced the notion that for the regional powers the competition is, in the words of former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, “a waste of time.”

First impressions matter, to be sure. But if the American team or its fans are expecting the final three Nations games of 2019 to go the way this one did, they could be in for a rude awakening. Canadian coach John Herdman has been calling next weeks border clash at BMO a final for weeks, and his much-improved side knows that it has a legitimate chance to beat the Americans for the first time in more than three decades, and that doing so could help them leapfrog Panama and El Salvador in the FIFA rankings. Same goes for the rematch in Orlando next month.

Meantime, the return leg against Cuba will be played in the Cayman Islands — just the sort of locale the U.S. has often struggled in during the now-defunct semifinal qualifying round. Another 7-0 result there is unlikely. Assuming Americans make it through to next June’s final four, they’ll have their work cut out for them. Costa Rica always plays the Americans tough, and Mexico has beaten the USMNT on home soil the last four times the neighbors have met in a final.

Those games won’t look anything like Friday’s massacre. For a team trying to get back to the World Cup and also win, they most certainly won’t be a waste of time. The challenge for the U.S. remains bigger than that, of course. In addition to winning games, Berhalter is also charged with restoring pride to the national team, to win back the supporters who remain cynical more than two years after the qualifying disaster in Trinidad.

That’s understandable. Yet his squad can only play the opponent in front of it. It’s hard to argue with a result that tied a team record for the second-largest margin of victory. The 13,784 who showed up on this night — well short of a full house, it must be said — surely went home happy, even if keeping that way won’t be as easy as some might think.