Any lingering memories of the previous qualifying failures faded away as the United States under-23 team marched through the first half against Cuba. The missteps of three years ago felt like a lifetime ago. This revamped and youthful group cast those errors aside and proceeded along its own ruthless path. The professionalism and the quality in this group rose to the fore as the Americans booked a place in the Olympic qualifying semifinals with a 6-1 win over Cuba on Saturday.
This rout started with Cameron Carter-Vickers' emphatic header after 16 minutes. Matt Miazga and Jerome Kiesewetter struck in quick succession as the first half drew to a close to secure the points. Kiesewetter added his second goal four minutes after the interval, while Emerson Hyndman and Alonso Hernandez rounded off the victory with their goals in the last half-hour. Daniel Luis procured a consolation goal for Cuba in second-half stoppage time.
The final result reflected the evident gulf between the teams. Cuba entered this affair with just 15 players and wilted during a second match in three days. The tattered state of affairs left the Americans to assert and wield their dominance to guarantee one of the two available berths out of Group A. Their place atop the group -- and a considerably easier assignment in the winner-take-all semifinal at Rio Tinto Stadium next Saturday -- is all but confirmed due to their vastly superior goal difference, but a point against Panama on Tuesday secures it without doubt.
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"This was important," U.S. coach Andreas Herzog said. "It was our goal. It is what we said on our meeting in the locker room before we left for the field: We wanted to set the tone right from the beginning. The boys did a good job. And that's why we deserve to be in the semifinals."
U.S. coach Andreas Herzog made three changes to his side and relied on his core players to drive the efforts forward on short rest. The gambit worked as the Americans took firm control in the early stages and used their superiority in the air to manufacture the opener.
Luis Gil -- inserted at the tip of the midfield diamond after scoring in the 3-1 win over Canada on Thursday -- created the danger with an inswinging free kick from the left wing. There were several runners poised to benefit from the quality of the delivery, but Carter-Vickers rose highest to nod home on the edge of the goal area.
The early goal provided the Americans with a tangible advantage and underscored their ability to dictate the terms of the match. They were comfortable in their defensive duties -- aside from one effort from Maykel Reyes -- and controlled in their work in possession. The balance of play reflected their dominance and eventually ushered them to the points before the break.
"I thought today was much better, a lot better," U.S. captain Wil Trapp on the improvement in possession. "The understanding was just coming around. I think today was a huge step for us."
Once again, the breakthrough came with a delivery into the penalty area. Matt Polster -- deployed on the right side of the midfield diamond after playing at right back in the opener -- collected a second ball and hit a diagonal toward the back post. Miazga created space from his marker and nodded home the second after 36 minutes.
The dissection continued with a well-constructed team goal two minutes later. Gil split the Cuban centerbacks with a vertical ball out of midfield. Jordan Morris streaked behind the line and squared for the unmarked Kiesewetter to slot into the vacated net for the third seven minutes before the interval.
At that stage, the question shifted from the outcome of the match to the margin of the American victory. Cuba faded after the break for a second consecutive game and paved the way for the home side to pad its goal difference to the point where second-place Canada could not catch them even with a romp over Cuba on Tuesday in Commerce City, Colo.
The threatened deluge of goals never arrived as Herzog inserted a few of his squad players as the match wound to a close, but the Americans made it more comfortable nevertheless. Kiesewetter grabbed his second four minutes after play resumed, while Hyndman and Hernandez padded the margin of victory in the final half-hour.
Luis looped home a stunning riposte in second-half stoppage time, but it proved far too late to rescue Cuba from defeat or stop the Americans from reaching the last four in considerable style.