Two years after the El Salvador men's soccer team and its rabid soccer fans gave M&T Bank Stadium a taste of what games are like in their home country for a Gold Cup quarterfinal against the heavily favored U.S., the scene at the same venue for the same event should be quite different Saturday.
The result between Team USA and Cuba should not.
Yet after mostly sloppy performances in the three preliminary-round matches, the Americans enter the knockout stage knowing that replicating their 5-1 rout from 2013 might not be as simple as showing up for the 5 p.m. game and dominating an opponent that doesn't have the support the Salvadorans did.
A crowd of more than 40,000 is expected for this game compared to the more than 70,000 that showed up two years ago. Former U.S. star Landon Donovan joked after the 5-1 victory that many Salvadoran fans changed their shirts at halftime and started rooting for the real home team.
This year's U.S. team, including several veteran players who helped win the 2013 Gold Cup, realizes that the motivation will have to come from within its locker room and not from the "American Outlaws" and other fans that will make the trek to Baltimore.
"I don't spend one minute worrying about expectations from the outside," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said earlier this week. "You come into a tournament like this and everyone's focus has to be on the task at hand. There's no time to worry about the noise on the outside, positive and negative."
If anything, the expectations have been lowered a bit since the U.S. beat the Netherlands and Germany in European friendlies last month. Unlike the previous Gold Cup, when the Americans outscored their preliminary-round opponents by a combined 11-2 before crushing El Salvador, the U.S. had a pair of one-goal victories over Honduras (2-1) and Haiti (1-0) as well as a 1-1 tie Monday against Panama.
"I think we're definitely the team to beat in this tournament," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said at Friday's prematch press conference. "It was not perfect the way we went through the group stage, but it was impressive the way the players handled everything. And seeing all the other results, the up and downs the other teams had, I think we're very consistent in what we're doing."
Still, it led Klinsmann to make a number of changes, including sending home striker Jozy Altidore and bringing multidimensional veteran DaMarcus Beasley out of retirement from the national team. Klinsmann will have to make at least one more change Saturday since starting central defender John Brooks has to serve a one-game suspension for collecting two yellow cards.
"I think as you can see, CONCACAF [as a region] has gotten a lot harder, a lot tougher," U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said before the team's training at UMBC on Friday. "Haiti was the unknown team kind of in this group and as you can see, they advanced out of this group.
"They gave us a struggle with their speed on the counter[attack] and things like that. These games aren't going to be easy, none of them are. We play Cuba and it's probably going to be another tough game. Soccer is probably one of the most unpredictable sports you can play. … We're not going to take Cuba lightly."
Starting U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan said Thursday that U.S. opponents are feeding off the fact that the games have been close. It also doesn't hurt from a psychological standpoint that the U.S. is the highest-ranked team in the field (34th in the FIFA world rankings).
"There is obviously a determination to succeed and to do well, and especially when they play us, because it's probably similar to when we were playing Germany and Holland," Guzan said. "Now the roles are somewhat reversed. We know it's not going to be an easy game Saturday. We know that. We know it's going to be difficult. We know they are going to be, like you said, hungry. And it's a game we have to be ready for."
Another factor in the team's play to date is that unlike the preparation for last summer's World Cup, there is a lot less time to spend together. Last year, the team spent nearly a month in training before it started to play some pre-Cup friendlies. This year it was less than a week.
"There's guys on different physical schedules and you're trying to jell as quick as possible," Guzan said. "You've got guys from different parts of the world, different countries. When you bring that aspect into it, it's not easy to get on the same page, but you try your best. We were training twice a day before the World Cup and there's an understanding of what the guy next to you is going to do even before he did it."
Though disagreeing with a reporter's description that the team has looked disjointed, Guzan said, "It's trying to get on the same page, trying to understand the guy next to you, him understanding you. Sometimes that doesn't happen overnight, it doesn't happen in a week's time."
Klinsmann understands that the Cuban team might be playing more on emotion than ability, based on what transpired since its 1-0 victory over Guatemala on Wednesday night that let the world's 104th-ranked team advance to the knockout stage.
Two players failed to show up for the game and are believed to be trying to defect to the U.S. Two others did the same, leaving the team since it arrived for the tournament.
Though not confirming the reason for the departures, Cuba coach Raul Gonzalez said that he has "enough" players remaining and said there have been no distractions.
Two years ago, the U.S. didn't score until the 45th minute against Cuba in what turned out to be a 4-1 win in the group stage. So the U.S. isn't expecting an easy one.
"We have a lot or respect for them. Obviously we know what they're going through, on and off the field," Klinsmann said. "We're not taking anything lightly there tomorrow night. We're going to give it full focus, full concentration and the players have to get the job done."
Sun reporter Ryan Baillargeon contributed to this article.