Cuban National Teams Competing in Four Tournaments

At the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, Cuban soccer will be competing on four fronts. Cuban U17 and U20 national teams both qualified for full CONCACAF tournaments out of smaller Caribbean tournaments. A U21 squad will compete in the Central American and Caribbean Games in late November in Mexico.

With a chance to enter the 2015 Gold Cup next summer in the United States, Cuba’s full national team kicks off its play in the 2014 Caribbean Cup on November 11.

 

Cuba’s U17 finished 3rd place in the U17 Caribbean Cup, a qualifying tournament for the 2015 CONCACAF U17 Championship. Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Lucia will represent the Caribbean Zone in that regional tournament.

Cuba bested Dominica (4-0) and Suriname (2-0) to advance out of the first group stage of Caribbean qualifying for the CONCACAF tournament. In the second round of group play, Cuba demolished Guadeloupe (5-0) and defeated Martinique (1-0) before losing to Jamaica (0-3). By virtue of finishing second in Group B, the Caribbean Lions qualified for the full regional tournament.

As a consolation of sorts after already advancing to the CONCACAF tournament, Cuba beat Saint Lucia (2-0) on October 26 to win third place in the Caribbean competition.

Cuba’s U17 team will play in one of two groups of 6 teams early next year for the opportunity to qualify to the 2015 FIFA U17 World Cup in Chile.

In addition to the five teams from the Caribbean that have already qualified, North America’s three teams (Canada, Mexico, and the United States) enter the CONCACAF tournament automatically. The final two entrants from Central America are still to be decided in three weeks, but Honduras are in as tournament hosts and Costa Rica has assured its passage through one of two qualifying groups.

 

Cuba’s U20 national team also finds itself in the upcoming CONCACAF tournament. Though the squad started its qualifying campaign rather unceremoniously back in June, Cuba somehow squeaked through.

Cuba was placed in a qualifying group alongside Martinique, Barbados, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. After two draws to open the group in late June, Cuba’s 3-1 win over Martinique earned the Lions passage into the second group stage.

In that second round of group play in September, Cuba defeated Curaçao (1-0) before losing to Suriname (0-1). Cuba entered its final group stage match against Trinidad and Tobago with its future uncertain. The young Soca Warriors had already clinched their own qualification and may have taken their foot off the pedal, allowing Cuba to grab the early lead in the game. Though Trinidad and Tobago did battle back for a draw, Curaçao’s victory over Suriname meant Cuba finished second in Group A.

In an odd happenstance, Cuba’s U20 team won the consolation match against Aruba (2-1) to finish third overall in the 2015 CONCACAF U20 Championship Qualifying Tournament in the Caribbean.

Cuba will be joined by Haiti, Aruba, Trinidad and Tobago, and hosts Jamaica from the Caribbean. The three North American teams (Canada, Mexico, and the United States) enter the tournament automatically while Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala qualified out of Central America.

Cuba kicks off its 2015 CONCACAF U20 campaign in early January. The Cuban hopefuls face Mexico on January 10, Honduras on the 12th, Haiti on the 15th, Canada on the 19th, and El Salvador on the 22nd.

The tournament features two groups of six teams each and the group winners automatically advance to the 2015 U20 World Cup in New Zealand. The next four best teams are seeded based on group stage results. These four teams play (1 v 4, 2 v 3) and the winners of each match also advance to the World Cup.

There is a tough road ahead for Cuba’s u20 team but the isolated island nation does have a track record recently at the youth level.

Cuba qualified for the 2013 U20 World Cup in Turkey and even though they finished with 0 points and a -9 GD, the squad showed well for a program with such limited resources.

Cuba’s U20 team turned a few heads at the 2013 qualifying tournament in Puebla, Mexico. Finishing the tournament in fourth place earned the Caribbean Lions a berth in that dubious World Cup. Creative forward Maykel Reyes was particularly impressive and he has continued his participation with the national team program.

 

Cuba’s under 21 team will take part in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz, Mexico, in November. There is heavy overlap between the squads for these two competitions.

The 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games is organized into two groups of four teams. Cuba, which starts play on November 19, is in a group with Costa Rica, Haiti, and Venezuela. This tournament uses U21 teams with up to three overage players allowed in the 20-man squad.

 

Cuba’s full senior national team qualified for the 2014 Caribbean Cup by virtue of lifting the trophy in 2012. Though that surprise title run was in part due to Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago under-performing, Cuba has a strong opportunity to qualify for the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Kicking off on November 11, Cuba faces French Guiana, Curaçao, and Trinidad and Tobago. The top two finishers from each of the two groups advance to next year’s Gold Cup while the better of the the third-placed teams squares off against Honduras for the final berth into the full CONCACAF tournament.

Cuba’s youth teams have both managed to qualify for important Caribbean tournaments and the senior side has performed in recent competitions. However it is difficult to predict whether Cuba is fully prepared for the Caribbean Cup since the team didn’t participate in the qualification cycle.

Cuba Falls 4-0 to a Young, Inexperienced Panama Squad

The Cuban national team traveled to Panama to face that squad in a preparation match for the upcoming Caribbean Cup and Central American Cup.

Colombian head coach of Panama’s national team, Hernán Darío Gómez, could only choose players based in that country’s league because Wednesday night’s match was not on an official FIFA fixture date. A further restriction on his selection was Chorrillo FC’s participation in the current CONCACAF Champions’ League earlier in the week.

Cuba never expected to win this match but was using the contest to try out some new faces for the upcoming busy months. As in every case, Cuba’s coaching staff could only choose players from their domestic league because players who leave Cuba are no longer welcome in the national team setup. The island nation is participating in three tournaments in the fall of 2014, though each at a different age level.

The U-17 team dominated the first group stage of Caribbean qualifying for next year’s CONCACAF Championship. Cuba plays three matches of the second group stage of qualifying between September 27 and October 1.

The Central American and Caribbean Games, a sort of regional Olympics, is planning to bring soccer back to its slate of events. A spat with FIFA forced the organizers to drop the sport from the 2010 addition. Cuba is one of 8 nations participating in the soccer tournament that uses U-21 squads with three overage players allowed (born before January 1, 1993. This tournament runs from November 19 to November 28.

The most important of the three, however, is the 2014 Caribbean Cup. 8 teams will compete in two groups before a knockout stage to determine a champion. The top 4 teams will qualify automatically to the 2015 Gold Cup, the 5th place team will hold a playoff against the 5th place team from the Central American Cup to earn a berth to that Gold Cup, but most exciting is the pass to the 2016 Copa América Centenario available to the winner of the Caribbean tournament.

Cuba lifted the 2012 Caribbean Cup trophy over a disappointing Trinidad and Tobago squad and therefore won an automatic place in the group stage of the 2014 edition. The Cubans will have a tough time defending their title but are already preparing for the fight. The 2014 Caribbean Cup starts on November 9 and the title game is on November 18.

 

Squad for Panama on 8/20
Name (Club), Age, Number of appearances – last national team call-up
Kevin Melgar (Tauro FC), 21, 3 caps – preliminary squad vs Peru
Alex Rodríguez (Sporting SM), 24, 2 caps – August 6 match vs Peru
Óscar McFarlane (Pérez Zeledón; Costa Rica), 33, 34 caps – August 6

Porfirio Ávila (Chepo FC), 22, 1 cap – August 6
Nahill Carrol (Tauro FC), 30, 7 caps – prelim vs Peru
Richard Peralta (Alianza FC), 20, 1 cap – August 6
Joshua Hawkins (Atlético Chiriquí), 32, 1 cap – August 6
Chin Hormechea (Árabe Unido), 18, 0 caps – ???
Fidel Escobar (Sporting SM), 19, 0 caps – prelim vs Peru

Pedro Jeanine (San Francisco FC), 20, 1 cap – August 6
Josiel Núñez (Plaza Amado), 21, 21, 1 cap – August 6
Juan De Gracia (Arabe Unido), 28, 4 caps – August 6
Hécgar/Edgar Murillo (Tauro FC), 20, 0 caps – prelim vs Peru
Justin Simons (San Francisco FC), 16, 0 caps – prelim vs Peru
Richard Rodriguez (San Francisco FC), 18, 0 caps – prelim vs Peru
Francisco Narbón (James Madison University), 19, 1 cap – August 6
Adonis Villanueva (Río Abajo), 21, 1 cap – August 6

Ismael Díaz (Tauro FC), 17, 0 caps – prelim vs Peru
Edgar Yoel Barcénas (Arabe Unido), 20, 1 cap – August 6
Abdiel Arroyo (Arabe Unido), 20, 1 cap – ???
Angel Patrick (Árabe Unido), 22, 0 caps – ???
Armando Paolo (Arabe Unido), 24, 1 cap – prelim vs Peru
Ameth Ramírez (Plaza Amador), 20, 0 caps – August 6

 

Cuban squad vs Panama
Walter Benítez is the normal head coach but the squad was directed by assistant coach Rolando Ayllón

Name (Club), Age, Number of caps

4 Goalkeepers:
Diosvelis Alejandro Guerra (FC Artemisa), 24, 0 caps
Arael Argüelles (Cienfuegos)
Anoide Sardiñas (Ciego de Ávila)
Danilo Baró (Camagüey)

9 Defenders:
Renay Malblanche (Holguín), 23, 14 caps
Michel Márquez (Isla de Juventud), 27, 0 caps
Hanier Dranguet (Guantánamo), 31, 23 caps
Jorge Luis Corrales (Pinar del Río), 23, 20 caps
Yennier Rosabal (Granma) 31, 2 caps
Dairon Blanco (Las Tunas), 22, 0 caps
Yenier Márquez (Villa Clara), 35, 44 caps?
Yasmany López (Ciego de Ávila), 26, ???
Orisbel Leiva (Ciego de Ávila) ?????

9 Midfielders:
Félix Guerra (Granma), 25, ???
Alberto Gómez (Guantánamo), 26, 24 caps
Yannier Martínez (Villa Clara) ?????
Armando Coroneaux (Camagüey), 29, 15 caps
Miguel Ángel Sánchez (Isla de la Juventud), 27, 1 cap
Liván Pérez (Camaguey) 24, 4 caps
Pedro Darío Suárez (La Habana), 22, ???
Jesús Rodríguez (Ciego de Ávila), 25, 1 cap
Tomás Cruz (Ciego de Ávila) ?????

4 Forwards:
José Ciprián Alfonso (Pinar del Río), 30, 4 caps
Yoandri Puga (Isla de Juventud), 26, 3 caps
Ángel Rodríguez (Ciego de Ávila), 23, ???
Ariel Martínez (Sancti Spiritus), 28, 39 caps

 

Lineups for Wednesday’s match that ended Panama 4-0 Cuba.

Oscar McFarlane;
Ángel Patrick, Jorshua Hawkins, Richard Peralta, Porfirio Ávila (Eric Davis, 46′);
Amílcar Henríquez, Francisco Narbón (Juan De Gracia, 60′), Josiel Núñez (Richard Rodríguez, 67′), Hecgar Murillo (Abdiel Arroyo, 60′);
Yoel Bárcenas (Darwin Pinzón, 46′), Armando Polo (Ismael Díaz, 46′)

Diosvelis Guerra;
Jeniel Márquez, Renay Malblanche, Jorge Luis Corrales, Yasmany López;
Alberto Gómez, Tomás Cruz (Livián Pérez, 55′), Yennier Rosabal, Jesús Rodríguez (Félix Guerra, 54′);
Ariel Martínez, Yoandir Puga (José Ciprián Alfonso, 68′)

Cuba did well to stymie Panama’s attack through the first half and into the beginning of the second half. A combination of the Panamanian reinforcements introduced into the game and Cuba’s players tiring undid that hour-long hard work.

Second half substitute Darwin Pinzón opened the scoring in the 67th minute before Juan de Gracia doubled Panama’s lead in the 70th minute, only 10 minutes after stepping on the field. Pinzón fired his second and Panama’s third just 4 minutes later to underline a hectic 7 minute period for Cuba’s defense.

Cuba ventured forward a few times after conceding those 3 goals in rapid succession but couldn’t force McFarlane into making saves. Panama capped the thorough victory with a first minute stoppage time goal from Ismael Díaz. The Cuban defense looked in shambles in the second half of this match but hopefully the team can take something from this game going forward.

Even this under-strength Panama squad is likely more talented than most teams Cuba will face in the upcoming Caribbean Cup. Cuba played Guatemala on Saturday night in another preparation exhibition match.

Cuba’s Golden Ball Winner of 2013 – Ariel Martinez

The excerpts were originally published in Spanish by Mario Lara on Fútbol Cubano. The full article can be read in its entirety here.

Cuba’s Golden Ball Winner for 2013: Ariel Martínez

A nuestro entender el jugador espirituano es el mejor jugador del año en Cuba, jugador inteligente, rápido con una gran gambeta y buen disparo con ambas piernas, Ariel se convirtió este año en un jugador vital para sus equipos. Con sus tres goles, de los cuatro en total que marcó Sancti Spíritus, en la Primera Vuelta del Campeonato Nacional, mantuvo las esperanzas yayaberas de clasificar para el Torneo de Clausura hasta la última jornada. Adoptado por el Expreso de Villa Clara se fue abriendo de a poco un paso en el once inicial, hasta convertirse con sus goles y asistencias en el jugador Más Valioso del cuadro Naranja en las semifinales y Finales camino a la obtención de su décimo tercera corona.
Convocado a la selección que participó en la Copa de Oro en Estados Unidos, Ariel fue sin duda de lo más remarcable en los dos primeros partidos de Cuba, en los que sumó una asistencia, antes de su apoteósico desempeño frente al conjunto de Belice encaminando con un triplete (primer cubano en lograr un Hat Trick en dicha competición) el pase de Cuba a los Cuartos de Final del Torneo por segunda vez en su historia.

“In our view, the player from Sancti Spíritus is the year’s best player in Cuba. An intelligent player, fast with a great dribble and a good shot with both feet, Ariel became a vital player for his club and national team this year.

With his three goals, of the four total that FC Sancti Spíritus scored, in the First Round of the National Championship, he sustained the hopes of the yayaberas [people from the region] to quality for the Torneo de Clausura until the last matchday.

Brought in by FC Villa Clara, he slowly stepped up into the starting eleven, until with his goals and assists he became the MVP of the orange squad in the semifinals and finals on the road to lifting its thirteenth crown.

Called up to the national team that participated in the Gold Cup in the United States, Ariel was without doubt the most remarkable player. Notching an assist in the first two games for Cuba, before his tremendous performance against the Belizean contingent routing them with a triple (the first Cuban to score a Hat Trick in this competition) propelling Cuba into the Quarterfinals of the tournament for only the second time in its history.”

Silver Ball: Osvaldo Alonso Continue reading

Cuban forward Yaikel Pérez signs with Fort Lauderdale Strikers

Yaikel Pérez playing with Alianza F.C. in El Salvador – photo credit to ElGrafico.com

On Tuesday afternoon the Fort Lauderdale Strikers announced the signing of Cuban forward Yaikel Pérez for the remainder of the 2013 NASL season.

Pérez played for local team Ciudad de Habana growing up in Cuba and impressed coaches enough to earn a call up to the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The striker was on the Gold Cup squad along with Lester Moré, Maykel Galindo, Pedro Faife, and Reysander Fernández who have all since defected to the United States. Defection is an ugly word held over from the heated political exchanges between the United States and Cuba during the Cold War. The unique political situation of the two countries presents an opportunity for Cuban migrants to receive a work permit to work in the States more easily than other undocumented immigrants from Latin America.

Pedro Faife and Reiner Alcántara both joined Miami FC, a precursor to the modern Strikers, after they left the national team during a World Cup Qualifying match in 2008. Five players who left Cuba’s u23 team during qualification for the 2008 Olympics trained with Miami FC, but none were given contracts at the time.

Pérez signed with Miami FC in 2006 but only stayed in southern Florida for a single season. After leaving Miami FC, he bounced around amateur and minimally professional teams in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. In 2012 the Cuban forward moved to El Salvador where he established some consistency with Alianza F.C. and also played for CD Aguila. On August 13, NASL club Fort Lauderdale Strikers announced they had reached an agreement for Pérez for the rest of the 2013 season. The Strikers have 12 games left in the season and 6 of those are at home in Lockhart Stadium.

Some may criticize the team for signing a player in what may be an attempt to pander to a large Cuban population in southern Florida. There might be some merit in those criticisms since Pérez has not exactly lit up the field in his journeyman career (the Strikers are his 10th team in 8 years). However, Pérez may have hit his stride recently in El Salvador and simply needed the interceding years to make up for the lack of development he received in his native Cuba.

Cubans Deserting in Canada and Potential Emigration Reform

As with many things on the island, details are hard to come by with regard to soccer in Cuba.  Reports on Spanish language news sites in the days after Cuba’s controversial loss in Canada have listed the four players who were missing.  These players are goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper (31 March 1992), defender Raisender Fernandez (22 August 1984), and attacking midfielders Maikel Chang (18 April 1991) and Evier Cordovez (10 November 1989).

One of these things is not like the other; later reports in English have said that one player was sick and the other three had deserted the team hotel.  If that’s the case then the defecting players are probably Cooper, Chang, and Cordovez because they are young players with futures in the game.  It doesn’t make as much sense for a 28 year old to abandon his life in Cuba for a shot at a career in the United States.

Cuba left three starters and four impact players with the potential to change a game on the island when they traveled to Canada.  Raul Gonzalez elected to only bring 15 players with him to the World Cup Qualifying match in Toronto amid whispers that he overlooked players who might have thoughts about jumping ship while on the continent.  This plan perhaps lacked foresight as 3 young players brought in as replacements ended up deserting the national team anyway.  Rumors on Twitter said that Cooper, Chang, and Cordovez, (along with team psychologist Ignacio Abreu) attempted to cross the border the night of Cuba’s match in Canada.

As is often the case with Cuban defectors, we may see these players pop up in American lower division clubs (as I’ve written about here) or we may never hear these names again outside of the timeline of Cuban international defections.  The pure fan in me wants to see these young players make it as professional footballers and make a living in the United States.  I know many second and third division teams in this country could use adaptable attacking midfielders/forwards.

In the future however, perhaps players won’t have to desert their country in order to ply their craft outside of the island nation.  Raul Castro made a symbolic step forward Tuesday, October 16, by reforming the exit visa process to leave Cuba.  Castro announced that now most Cubans (aside from doctors and certain other crucial professions) are free to apply for and pursue visas to leave the communist island.  Under previous rules, Cubans were not able to leave the country legally and any clandestine actions (such as desertion abroad or fleeing to Florida) were met with retribution toward’s the person’s family.  What is not clear is whether soccer players who leave Cuba under these terms will be welcome to play for the national team, or whether these athletes would want to represent the country they (may have) suffered in.

According to the BBC, the reforms set to take place in January will make it easier for Cubans to legally come to the United States.  “Cuba previously saw people attempting to leave the country as traitors or enemies of the revolution, but official recognition is growing that many Cubans want to leave for economic reasons and that the country can benefit from the cash and knowledge they bring back with them.”  The potential remittances could be remarkable for Cuba as these payments make up a sizable chunk of the economies of several Latin American countries.

This reform is a small and mostly ceremonious step, but a step nonetheless, towards the ambitious reforms outlined shortly after Raul took power.  If the emigration reform is perceived true and successful, Cuba could see the fulfillment of other lofty promises such as the implementation of certain capitalistic practices.  I am merely speculating here, but if this occurs Cuban football could undergo a radical transformation into a destination league; firstly for investors and then for talented players from around the Caribbean.  In five or ten years if the USL still operates professional soccer, imagine them tapping into Cuba in a more successful mirror of their failed venture into Puerto Rican waters.  Or perhaps a united Cuban club could field a team in the United States following the model of the Puerto Rico Islanders.

No matter what imagined outcome awaits Cuba, further reforms can only help the football of the island nation.  Economic and social reforms that forge a strong middle class will buoy any independently operated soccer leagues in Cuba while national team players venture off the island in search of growth as athletes.  Both of these processes can improve the development of the Cuban national team and ensure future success beyond the group stage of the Gold Cup and the third round of World Cup Qualifying.

Yosmel de Armas and the Problem of Cuban Player Defections

Yosmel de Armas competing against Honduras in the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament

At some point between the Cuban u23 team’s game against Honduras on Saturday and when the team loaded onto the bus from the hotel for the match against Canada on Monday, Yosmel de Armas fled the team hotel.

The 22 year old defender who played for La Habana back in Cuba is the latest in an extensive series of athletes who defect during tournaments in the United States.  A majority of these cases are baseball players, boxers, and soccer players.

“The player that’s not here today is feeling very sick. He left yesterday in practice. He injured his ankle, so he was in the hotel. Something else happened. He doesn’t really know,” a translator said for Cuba coach Raul Triana Gonzalez about de Armas being listed as “Not present” for the match against Canada. Continue reading

United States Olympic Qualifying, A Class Above Cuba

Joe Corona celebrates a first half goal against Cuba with the team

Claudio Reyna joined Caleb Porter on the bench for the United States’ opening match in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and they both liked what they saw.  Porter lined the team up in his 4-3-3 with Hamid in goal; Sarkodie, Kitchen, Opara, and Valentin in front of him; Jeffrey playing the defensive role in a midfield triangle with Corona and Diskerud; and then a forward line of Adu, Agudelo, and Shea.  The tournament allows a full bench, meaning the rest of the squad was available as substitutes: Terrence Boyd, Teal Bunbury, Joe Gyau, Sean Johnson, Amobi Okugo, Michael Stephens, Tony Taylor,  Jorge Villafana, and Sheanon Williams.

The US was in control of the game from the outset, dictating play and probing for holes in Cuba‘s defense.  That hole came in the 11th minute when Joe Corona opened the scoring.  Freddy Adu put a served a free kick into the box and Juan Agudelo rose to challenge but Cuba’s keeper (Odisnel Cooper) came out to punch.  The ball fell to Corona in the box, who took it off his check and neatly side footed into the back of the net. Continue reading