Unfancied Cuba, which had lost both of their previous Group C matches while conceding eight goals and scoring none, produced the upset of the CONCACAF Gold Cup on Wednesday night in Charlotte, N.C., stunning Guatemala, 1-0 on a Maikel Reyes header with 17 minutes remaining.
The win sends Cuba into a quarterfinal match Saturday against the United States in Baltimore, while Guatemala head home after an extremely disappointing performance in the competition. It was a testimony to Cuba’s character that the side was able to overcome visa problems and player defections, which had marked the group stage, to produce a quality performance when it mattered most.
Trinidad & Tobago earned a dramatic 4-4 draw with Mexico in the nightcap to finish atop Group C, while the Cubans can begin planning for their quarterfinal test against the Americans.
Although Guatemala started well and had an early territorial edge, they were never able to dictate the pace to a Cuban team that had lost another player to defection on the day of the match but continued to battle with the limited resources remaining. They had more speed and, eventually, far more attacking ideas against a Guatemala side that seemed unable to find any high gear after the first 15 minutes.
Carlos Mejia, Marco Pappa, Jorge Apricio and Denis Lopez all had half-chances for Guatemala in the opening 33 minutes, but none of them made Diosvely Guerra work overtime in the Cuban goal. Those half-chances proved to be the best that Guatemala could create.
At the other end, Cuba’s most effective player, Ariel Martinez, forced Paulo Motta to touch his free kick over the far corner and then snapped another set piece past the near right post as the Cubans showed flashes of what they would produce in the second half.
After the stop-start nature of that opening 45 minutes, the game opened up and changed character after the interval. Veteran Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz hit a shot wide of the left post on the turn in the 49th minute as Guatemala created the first opportunity, but it was Cuba that was the more effective side thereafter.
Motta had to react well three times in six minutes to Cuban attacks led by Martinez between the 52nd and 58th minutes. One save was a difficult, quick reaction block at the top of the box. Cuba were finding room to run at the Guatemalan defense and space for crosses to come in, but despite the concerted pressure they were unable to finish the job until the 74th minute.
Then it was another fine run forward by Martinez, this time down the inside right channel. His quick pass found Alberto Gomez wide open on the left. His cross was right on the head of Reyes to power home the header from point-blank range.
It was no more than Cuba deserved as they had taken the battle to the Central Americans, who appeared worn out from their effort against Mexico three nights previous and lost control of the center of the field and its chance to reach the knockout stage.
Cuba (1-2-0) advanced despite finishing with a minus-7 goal differential in pool play, the worst in Gold Cup history. The previous low among teams to advance out of pool play was Trinidad and Tobago in 2000 and Cuba in 2013, both with minus-2 scoring differentials.
“The goal was important for the team and for me it was extremely important,” Reyes said through an interpreter. “This is a match that will go down in the history of Cuban football.”