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Canada stumbles to a draw with shorthanded Cuban side

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2015 U23MNT Oly Qual logo 1650x580 bannerCuba entered the game with just 14 players in its squad. After the kickoff, the Cubans made two critical errors that gifted Canada two goals.

Yet, despite all of these edges, Canada could only manage a 2-2 draw in its CONCACAF Olympic qualifying group-stage finale. Canada had all the advantages, but the Cubans had the guts and, it has to be said, a far superior fitness level in the rarified air of the Denver suburbs.

Canada had to hang on for a draw — which leaves it with a 1-1-1 record — after a late goal from Arichel Hernandez levelled the score. He was able to chip the ball over keeper Maxime Crepeau for his second goal of the game, and Canada was left to frantically defend for the final few minutes.

For the Cubans, they must be wondering about the what ifs. A win would have sent them through to the semis and eliminated the Canadians (Canada now has to wait on the result of the United States-Panama match). And they can look hard at themselves and say, truthfully, that Canada were gifted two goals. Canada took a 2-1 lead early in the second half thanks to a howler from Cuban keeper Sandy Sanchez. Sub Mo Babouli hit a free kick over the wall, but right at Sanchez. Somehow, the ball went under Sanchez’s hands and into the goal. It was cool and rainy, but this wasn’t a case of a wet ball sliding through the keeper’s arms. Even though Sanchez was in decent position, he flapped at the ball — and missed it completely.

Sanchez wasn’t the only Cuban to provide a gift to he Canadians. In the 26th minute, Cuban defender Abel Martinez Colon left a back pass for his keeper horribly short. Canadian attacker Michael Petrasso pounced on the ball and put it into the net. That goal gave Canada the 1-0 lead.

The goal came just three minutes after Hernandez was sent in alone on the Canadian goal, but blasted, his effort wide. It was a classic case of a miss at one end, then a goal at the other.

But Hernandez punished Canada in the 32nd minute. A corner kick from Canada’s Chris Mannella was dealt with by the Cuban defenders; after a quick diagonal ball, three Cuban players were off to the races on the counter. After another good pass, the Cubans were on a two-on-one, with only Canadian defender Jackson Farmer in the back. A good ball was played across to Hernandez, who poked an effort just inside the post to tie the game, 1-1.

With the lead against a shorthanded side, Canada was exposed. Canada committed too many players forward, didn’t respect the opponent, and got burned.

And Cuba could have taken the lead at the stroke of halftime. Right before the whistle, Cuban strike Hector Morales was alone in the box and had the ball coming right to him. But, somehow, he failed to control the slick ball, and Canada was spared what could have been a point-blank attempt at goal.

Cuba came into this match with just 14 players on the roster. Cuba’s squad list had 10 outfield players (none looking to be out of position) and a keeper with just three subs. But, two of the three subs were keepers. So, basically, Cuba went into the match with just one sub available to play in either defence, midfield or attack. The lack of subs should have been even more critical in the high altitude, as the Cubans, you’d think, would be running out of gas. But, late in the game, it was the Cubans whose legs were in better shape than the Canadians.

You can argue that Canada was playing its third game in a week. But, so were the Cubans. And the Cubans had a smaller squad.

As we’ve seen in previous competitions involving the Cubans, players have a habit of, ahem, leaving the Cuban fold and bolting for the chance to live and possibly play in another country.

Cuba has a policy of not allowing players to represent its national team, even if they choose to play in a country that has normal relations with the island nation. Remember that former Cuban keeper Andy Ramos trialled for FC Edmonton in 2013; Cuba and Canada have friendly relations, and Ramos didn’t escape his homeland to come to Canada. But, he knew that, by showing up for the Eddies’ training camp, he was kissing his chance to play for his country goodbye. (CLICK HERE) After the trial with FC Edmonton, he hasn’t played for Cuba — even though he was part of their national squad and played in World Cup qualifiers before he went to Canada.

I’ve been to Cuba. And not, the been-to-Varadero-resorts-and-out thing; my family spent time in Havana, going to baseball games, venturing into poor neighbourhoods and lining up for ice cream at Coppelia. It’s a stunningly beautiful and complex nation, with people who are exceptional well educated about the United States and the rest of the world. It’s brand of communism is unique, where the focus is on managing the economy — compare that to China, where capitalism has been embraced. But, in having an educated yet economically stunted populace — and strict rules for athletes about being banned from national teams for simply dreaming of playing abroad — Cuba has created a perfect storm for defectors, a storm which we see return and rage in tournament after tournament.

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