But with the rigors of qualifying for the next World Cup starting next autumn, the United States was in punishing form from the start, showed no mercy and led by six at halftime in its debut in the new regional tournament.
Coach Gregg Berhalter’s squad will face a stronger test Tuesday against Canada in Toronto — and truer challenges en route to Qatar in 2022 as he rebuilds the program with a core of young players.
McKennie, 21, doubled his international goal total before leaving at halftime. Jordan Morris, 24, Josh Sargent, 19, and Christian Pulisic, 21, also scored in front of an announced 13,784.
Morris tied a program record with three assists. An own goal contributed to the tally, which was tied for the third most in U.S. men’s history.
“You see the focus in the players, the intensity of the players,” Berhalter said. “It was good to see. We maintained that focus and intensity for the entire first half. You see the outcome. It was a worthwhile game for us to continue to grow.”
The front three of Pulisic (Chelsea), Sargent (Werder Bremen) and Morris (Seattle) was in top form against mild resistance. From midfield, McKennie (Schalke) pushed into the attack and capitalized on fine setups.
“The game plan was to try to get on top of them early,” Morris said. “If we did that, then to keep the foot on the pedal and score more goals. We came out flying.”
As is usually the case when Cuba visits the United States, there were off-field issues for the visitors. Defender Yonaidis Garcia, 22, went missing, apparently with the intention of defecting. According to ADN Cuba, a news website. Garcia disappeared shortly after the delegation arrived in Washington on Thursday.
Concacaf, the governing body overseeing the competition, said in a statement Friday afternoon that it was notified by the Cuban Football Association that Garcia “will not travel with the team to the stadium.”
After the match, Cuba Coach Pablo Elier Sanchez said through an interpreter that Garcia “is not with us anymore” and declined to elaborate. “That is something internally we are talking about.”
Also, defender Yosel Piedra did not receive a visa.
Since 1999, more than 50 Cuban soccer players, most notably longtime MLS midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, have defected while in the United States or Canada.
Friday’s outcome was settled quickly.
Just after kickoff, an attack that started in the back ended with Morris crossing to McKennie on the back side for an eight-yard finish to the near corner.
In the fifth minute, Morris’s cross from the edge of the penalty area connected with McKennie crashing the six-yard box for an easy putaway.
In the ninth, Sargent supplied McKennie, who pivoted and linked with Morris for an effort to the near corner from close range.
McKennie completed his hat trick in the 13th minute. From near the sideline, Morris passed to cutting right back Reggie Cannon, who crossed into the six-yard box. Sargent missed with a stab at the near post, but McKennie and Pulisic were waiting. McKennie pushed it into the net.
It was believed to be the fastest three-goal performance to start a U.S. match. Brian McBride once scored three times in an 11-minute span over the course of a game.
In the 37th minute, Nelson Johnston saved Morris’s clear bid, but the deflection caromed off defender Dario Ramos’s head for an own goal.
In the 40th, Morris slipped a pass back to Sargent for a powerful one-timer. In the 62nd, Pulisic converted a penalty kick.
The Americans finished with lopsided advantages in shots (24-4) and corner kicks (17-0).
It will not come as easy against Canada, which already has beaten Cuba twice in three-team Group A and did not have to play this weekend. With the outcome settled early, Berhalter pulled McKennie and Morris at halftime and Pulisic in the 67th minute.
“If I could have written the game up, it would have been exactly like this,” Berhalter said: “Score early, score many goals early and then cruise. I think we saved ourselves. We will be fit and ready to go.”