NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Thursday night's match at LP Field between the United States and Cuba, opening each team's Olympic qualifying campaign, is filled with connections to the past.
Four years ago, the Americans earned a spot in the 2008 Summer Games with a 3-0 victory over Canada on the same grass. Their first opponent in the CONCAFAF championship was Cuba, with whom they drew 1-1. Freddy Adu, captain of the 2012 squad, started and scored in that tilt, the first of his four goals during the tournament.
Of course, no one on the American roster is focusing on those details. Right now, it's all about the present, which means a matchup against a relatively unknown Cuba squad (Thursday, 8 pm CT, Universal Sports Network, CONCACAF.com, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com). Start off with a victory and the US set themselves up well for a first-place finish in Group A, which likely means avoiding Mexico in the do-or-die semifinal.
Tie, as in 2008, or lose, and the road to qualifying for the London Games instantly becomes much rockier.
"We're not taking Cuba lightly," head coach Caleb Porter told reporters on Wednesday. "They are an organized team, and we know that they are going to give us a very tough game, but we're also very confident."
Porter brought an impressive array of talent to Tennessee. The 20-man roster is stacked with senior-team faces, including Adu, Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea.
The last man on that list is the one who could carry the team. Shea, the only player to figure in all 10 USMNT games since the arrival of Jurgen Klinsmann, has continued his run of outstanding form with the U-23s.
"Brek," answered D.C. United defender and US vice captain Perry Kitchen, without pausing, when asked who stood out in training. "He just kicks it into fifth gear and scores a goal. He's a special player."
Shea, sporting a blonde-and-purple mohawk, is taking his rapid improvement in stride.
"If that's what happens, that's what happens," he said of his chances to break out on the world stage during Olympic qualifying. "I'm just here to go to the Olympics and play with my teammates. That's the goal."
Against Cuba, Shea could man one wing with Adu on the other and Agudelo at the top of the 4-3-3.
Mix Diskerud, who starred in the U-23s' 2-0 defeat of their Mexican counterparts in last month's friendly, will start in the middle of the formation and be a key in controlling the flow of the match. Porter's style encourages possession, passing and creativity, and the US will have plenty of opportunity against an opponent expected to play for the counter.
Cuba rarely play outside their home country, but the US were able to send a scout to a game and assemble a detailed scouting report on the team.
Seven of the 18 Cubans in Nashville play for La Habana, including forward Heviel Cordovés, who led all of first and second round CONCACAF qualifying with five goals. They drew 1-1 with Trinidad and Tobago during the second round of qualifying and have shown some spark.
"They only lost 1-0 against Bolivia a couple weeks ago," Agudelo said. "They look like a good side, an athletic side."
At the same time, the Americans will determine the outcome of this game. If they play as they are capable of, three points will follow.
"It's 75 percent just us and the rest is knowing about them," Agudelo offered. "We've only been able to see a few clips of them, but we know what we have to do. If we're able to play the way we know we can play, we'll be able to achieve what we want to achieve."
And that, in the end, is a trip to London. After waiting four months, the U-23s are ready to take their first step.
"Everyone wants to go," Shea said, "and you just get one shot at it."