With a vital Nations League clash with Canada on the horizon, the U.S. men's national team's match against Cuba feels like an appetizer. However, given everything we have seen over the past several months, the U.S. seems to be a team that cannot afford to treat any match as anything less than a full-course meal.
A clash with Cuba generally has the look and feel of a good old fashioned confidence builder, and the USMNT is certainly in need of a little bit of confidence at the current moment. The last series of international matches - a 3-0 battering at the hands of rival Mexico and a 1-1 draw with a C-level Uruguay squad - seemed to bring the mood down a bit, while a series of talking points at the club level have also soured many.
Christian Pulisic is still not playing, Tyler Adams still is not healthy and Sergino Dest's future is still up in the air. The point is, the U.S. can use any sort of win they can get.
Knowing that, Gregg Berhalter faces a number of key choices. Does he field a first-choice XI, focusing solely on the task at hand while getting his key players a bit of momentum heading into that second match? Or, does he prepare for that second match by taking things a bit easy this time around, saving up for a Canada team that will have the benefit of rest heading into the clash in Toronto?
Ahead of Friday's clash, Goal has three projections for how the USMNT may look from the opening whistle against Cuba. Click back an hour before the game to see what Berhalter has decided to put on the field.
Most Likely XI
Berhalter and the USMNT will certainly take this game seriously, but they would benefit from not taking it too seriously. Cuba is a team that generally struggles against even the minnows of CONCACAF, so this is a chance to give key players some minutes and a chance to find their footing before, in theory, the game gets out of hand.
Christian Pulisic needs to play given his recent issues against Chelsea, but one would not blame Berhalter for taking him out once the game was one. You do not want to expose your top players to the inevitable 'CONCACAF-ing' that will occur if this game gets out of hand, of course, but look for Pulisic to at least get a good first-half runout. The same can be said of Weston McKennie with plenty of able-bodied replacements on the bench.
One of the key questions lies up top, even without Jozy Altidore in the fold, as Berhalter will have to decide between Josh Sargent and Gyasi Zardes. Conventional wisdom would say give Sargent the exposure against the overmatched Cuba team and use Zardes, if you really want to, against Canada's more battle-tested team.
However, that wisdom depends on just how far along you believe Sargent is right now. If you think he's ready for the big games, by all means, save him for Canada and let him sink or swim in what would be a bigger test. Berhalter could also use this match as a proving ground for Sargent, who could be given the opportunity to play and train his way into that lineup against Canada.
The 'Guys, it's Cuba' XI
The Nations League is a real competition with real standings and somewhat-real stakes but, at the end of the day, until it's Mexico, Canada or Costa Rica on the other side of that field, does it really matter?
With that in mind, why not give younger players a chance to thrive while saving as many veterans as possible for the next match? It has not been Berhalter's way so far as he has resisted the urge to go full-on youth movement, but if young guys are not ready to play against Cuba, are they even ready to be with the USMNT?
That line of thinking could lead to some newer faces with the likes of Miles Robinson, Brenden Aaronson, Jackson Yueill and Cory Baird chucked into the mix. We have not seen these guys much, if at all, at the international level, and a home match against Cuba seems like the perfect opportunity to at least see where they fit. Use the match like a measuring stick, and then build from there.
Welcome back, Yedlin!
Greg Berhalter's system has evolved a bit since he took over, although some of those evolutions have come due to the absence of Tyler Adams. Even so, there are plenty of questions surrounding DeAndre Yedlin's place with the national team, and the Newcastle defender is finally in a position to answer some of those questions.
Berhalter looks for technical, ball-playing defenders and Yedlin, admittedly, is not exactly that. His defensive ability has grown by leaps and bounds since his move to the Premier League, but he is far from prime Phillip Lahm back there. Still, at age 26, Yedlin is not quite an old dog that cannot be taught new tricks.
Even if he never becomes what Berhalter needs to be, can the USMNT afford to completely move on from Yedlin? He's one of the few USMNT players that is truly world-class at something, and that something is his pace. He is still one of the fastest players out there, and that speed erases some mistakes while creating a few others on the other side. Yedlin needs a chance to show himself, and a match where the USMNT will be on the front foot would be a good opportunity to give it to him.