Clint Dempsey’s first international hat trick sparked defending champion United States over Cuba 6-0 Saturday, advancing the Americans to the semi-finals of the Gold Cup football tournament.

The 32-year-old former Fulham striker nodded in the opening goal in the fourth minute, tucked in a penalty kick in the 64th minute and scored on a sliding right-footed flick in the 78th to seize the scoring lead in the biennial North American championship.

“It feels good. I have gotten them for my club before. Obviously, I’m fortunate. I wouldn’t be able to put the ball in the back of the net without my teammates,” said Dempsey. “You always want to score as many goals as you can. But the main thing is we won the game.”

By routing their long-time Cold War political rivals before 37,994 fans at the home of the NFL Baltimore Ravens, the Americans advanced to a Wednesday matchup in Atlanta against Jamaica, a 1-0 winner over Haiti in a later quarter-final.

Sunday’s quarter-finals send Mexico against Costa Rica and Panama against Trinidad and Tobago.

Dempsey’s six Gold Cup goals make him the man to catch for the Golden Boot scoring award. The Seattle Sounders forward’s 47 career goals put him second on the all-time US list, 10 shy of Landon Donovan’s record.

“He’s hungry for goals and he has two more meals,” US coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of Dempsey, adding with a laugh of the player’s first US hat trick, “It took him long enough.”

Striker Gyasi Zardes scored in the 14th minute, Aron Johannsson chipped in over Cuban goalkeeper Diosvelis Guerra in the 32nd minute and Omar Gonzalez netted another goal in the 45th minute as the US took it’s most lopsided Gold Cup triumph ever against a Cuban side depleted by defections.

“The players who were not here for us, they do not mean anything to us. They have chosen another path,” said Cuban coach Raul Gonzalez. “Our players were ready but in the end they couldn’t keep up the pace.”

Coach praises US-Cuba talks

Ongoing work by US and Cuban political leaders to restore diplomatic relations is vital for both nations, said Gonzalez, whose team one day might not have defectors.

“I believe that what our two countries are doing is very important,” Gonzalez said. “For us in football it’s very important. We could improve because of this.”

Five players were absent from the Cuban squad following reports of defections from the team during the tournament.

“Credit to them for dealing with the situations they had to deal with in getting here,” Dempsey said. “We were sharp from the start. We knew we had to put in a professional performance and we did.”

The Americans, trying to match Mexico’s record six Gold Cup crowns, stretched their win streak over Cuba to nine matches and improved to 9-1-1 all-time against the Communist island nation.

A title repeat would see the Americans clinch a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. The Americans must play this year’s Gold Cup champion for the spot if they do not reclaim the trophy.

“The confidence grows over time as the tournament goes on,” Dempsey said. “Hopefully our best ball is yet to come.”

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US goalkeeper Brad Guzan of Aston Villa outraced Cuban forward Maikel Reyes to intercept a long pass in the 50th minute to deny the visitors their best chance.

Cuba, ranked 70 spots below the USA at 104th in the world by FIFA, settled for matching its best Gold Cup run by reaching the last eight. The Cubans were ousted in 2003 and 2013 by the Americans.

Cuba’s only victory over the United States came by 5-2 in a 1947 friendly in Havana.

By AFP