BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, March 5, 2013
As the US U-20 national team now shifts its focus towards the World Cup, Daniel Cuevas has cemented his status as a key players after a breakout performance in the qualifying tournament.
US head coach Tab Ramos first began to introduce Cuevas into the U-20 team last February and since then he has been consistently called up nearly every camp in the cycle.
While Cuevas has been an important part of the team for over a year, it was during the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament where he emerged as a valuable and important player in the team's success.
In the team's opening 2-1 win over Haiti in group play, Cuevas was voted as the team's man of the match after earning a penalty which converted by Luis Gil and later scoring a goal of his own. After sitting out the 1-0 win over Costa Rica, Cuevas returned for the all-important quarterfinal game against Canada.
With qualification on the line in that one game, Canada scored first and raised doubt that the US U-20 team would fail to qualify for the second straight time. For Cuevas, however, he helped ensure that the Canadian lead was short lived as he assisted on Luis Gil's goal just six minutes later.
The Sacramento native insists he was more motivated after the first Canadian goal and never doubted that the U.S. team would come out on top.
"My mentality then was just to go right at them after their goal," Cuevas told YA. "If went at them the whole time, we were going to get the result. The fact that they got their goal first, I didn't really think much about that. I knew that if we just kept playing the way we knew how to play, we were going to get the goals and we did."
In the end, the US team continued to roll after the Canadian goal and cruised to a comfortable 4-2 victory. After the game, it was a remarkable sense of accomplishment for Cuevas and the core group of players who helped return to the U-20 team back to the biggest stage after a disappointing tournament in 2011.
"When the referee blew his whistle I was just really happy that all of our hard work finally paid off and I was thinking about everything we went through the past year," Cuevas explained. "We put in all the effort right through then end. Don't think a lot of people knew about me or had seen me play before, they just knew I got called up a lot for most of the camps. I guess we just surprised everybody."
Following the victory over Canada, the US team still had two games in the tournament to play despite that qualifying was assured. In the semifinal game against Cuba, Cuevas scored his second goal of the tournament off a 20 yard blast in the first half to give the US team its second goal in a 2-0 win.
It was not all good news for Cuevas as he suffered a sprained ankle in the second half and had to be stretchered off the field and was unable to return.
In the championship game against Mexico, Cuevas began the game on the bench. He wanted to play but the team's medical staff advised against it. In the end, the US team played very well but lost to Mexico 3-1 in extra time as a thin bench only allowed Ramos to make one substitution over 120 minutes.
After an uneven opening performance in the win over Haiti, the US team progressed throughout the tournament and put on a string of solid performances. Cuevas has noticed that the team usually improves the longer it is together.
"It's something that happens in almost every camp," Cuevas said. "Usually we don't get that much time together but in every camp we've noticed it. The longer we get to play with each other and be on the field together, the better we get throughout the time. I think it's something where we just have to be together for a longer period."
With the tournament now over, Cuevas is going home to California for a few days and then he will return to Mexico to rejoin Santos Laguna. He has yet to make his first team debut with the Liga MX club but he has been training with the top players.
At just 5'6, Cuevas has built his game around speed, strength, and quickness. Growing up, he was always been one of the smallest players on his teams but has always learned to adjust his game to be effective.
He plays both at forward and as a winger but prefers wider positions as it leaves him usually with just one defender to beat. Usually thriving in fast paced games, Santos Laguna's first team plays with style this more possession oriented and Cuevas has to adapt. Still, he hopes that his success with the US team will prove how effective he can be.
"It's a different style of soccer so I get the ball less," Cuevas said of Santos Laguna. "Normally I don't have it as much because it's a possession style of game. Usually if I'm going to take someone on it's a long pass, a give and go, or a through ball. I just hope that the coach was watching these games because I've done well. Usually over there I don't get to show off my skills because we play more possession. But hopefully he sees that I am ready and hopefully coming back I get my chance."
For now as he returns home for a few days, he is satisfied with the success over the last month and is excited for the World Cup this summer in what will be perhaps the highlight so far of his young career.
"I feel content with what the team accomplished even though no one really believed in us," Cuevas concluded. "We all pulled through and got our ticket to the World Cup. For me, now it's back to getting healthy and preparing myself for Turkey."