Coach Jurgen Klinsmann removed Clint Dempsey from his role as captain of the U.S. men's national soccer team before the start of the CONCACAF Gold Cup after the veteran striker's much-publicized confrontation with a Major League Soccer referee for being red-carded in a recent game.
Klinsmann, the former German star who knows a few things about scoring goals, was smart enough to keep the 32-year-old Texan in his more prominent role as the team's main offensive weapon — if not its only real scoring threat in the tournament.
Dempsey, who had scored three of his team's four goals in the three preliminary-round games, equaled that total in Saturday's 6-0 rout of undermanned Cuba in the first quarterfinal game before 37,994 at M&T Bank Stadium. It was the first hat trick of the American striker's international career.
Unaware that it was the first time Dempsey had done that in an international game, Klinsmann deadpanned, "It took him a long time."
It didn't take Dempsey, now the tournament's leading scorer with six goals, long to set the tone for an American team that had struggled to beat Honduras (2-1) and Haiti (1-0) in the first two preliminary-round games before tying Panama (1-1) on Monday night in Kansas City, Kan.
Dempsey's first goal came in the fourth minute with a header off a cross from midfielder Timmy Chandler. The U.S. followed with three more goals in the first half, including the first international goal by former Maryland star Omar Gonzalez right before halftime. Gonzalez scored in front when Aron Johannsson redirected a corner kick from U.S. captain Michael Bradley with his head.
"I've been waiting a long time for it. I'm very happy that I got my goal, especially in a town where it's very important to me," said Gonzalez, who started at central defender because John Brooks was suspended for collecting two yellow cards. "To come back here and get my first goal is incredible. I just wish I had more energy to celebrate it more."
Dempsey added a pair of second-half goals, a penalty kick in the 64th minute after Johannsson was knocked down in the box, and a beautiful sliding shot off the outside of his right foot in the 78th minute after a tired Cuban defender gave up the ball to Bradley, who found a streaking Dempsey.
Asked what the difference in Saturday's offensive outburst was from the first three games, Dempsey said: "We just started better. I think we put the game to bed early. When you start well, get goals, you play with more confidence, the game has to open up. We know they were a team that grows with confidence as the game goes on. We knew we had to put on a veteran performance that we did."
Cuba, which had advanced to the knockout stage despite having three players fail to show up for Wednesday's 1-0 win over Guatemala in Charlotte, N.C., was clearly overmatched. In all, Cuba had lost four players, who are believed to be in the process of defecting, since the tournament began.
Klinsmann had said during Friday's prematch news conference that he had reminded his players of the game against Cuba in the 2013 Gold Cup, when the Americans didn't score until right before halftime before going on to a 4-1 victory.
"We wanted them to take it really seriously. We didn't want to waste anything," Klinsmann said after the most one-sided win for the U.S. since the Gold Cup began in 1991. "We didn't want to fool around and kind of show off or anything like that. I made it very clear to everyone on the field that anyone that takes it lightly, we're going to take him off after 10 minutes."
A tap-in goal by Gyasi Zardes, a promising 23-year-old midfielder who joined the U.S. team earlier this year, gave the Americans a 2-0 lead in the 15th minute. Johannsson, a 24-year-old striker who was inserted into the starting lineup when Klinsmann sent Jozy Altidore home after the Panama game, scored on a 20-yard chip over the head of Cuban goalkeeper Diosvelis Guerra.
"Obviously he's not there where Clint is," Klinsmann said of Johannsson. "It's important to keep growing and get an opportunity to score goals and then when you have it, put it in. Throughout the entire game, he was hungry, he was waiting for that next opportunity. It builds more confidence, and more standing within the group. It's always about repositioning the hierarchy of the team and he wants to move up, no doubt about it."
Cuban coach Raul Gonzalez wouldn't blame his team's loss on the missing players.
Asked whether the outcome might have been different if his team had been at full strength, Gonzalez said: "I think we have what we have here. The players that aren't here, they don't really mean anything to us because they've chosen their path. I think with the players we have, we could have done better probably than we did today, but the team is pretty wiped out."
It will be interesting to see whether the easy victory energizes the Americans going into their semifinal Wednesday night in Atlanta against Jamaica, which beat Haiti, 1-0, in the second quarterfinal at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Our mentality is six games, one at a time. Right now, we're four down and we find ourselves in a semifinal," Bradley said. "Trust me, we feel very, very good about it. It's not been easy. All you have to do is look around the tournament and see the other results. We've taken care of things in a good way. There's more for us, we've got to keep getting better."