I was ready to write about how this match is setting up perfectly for the Yanks, and then Tuesday night in Kingston changed everything.
The US were set to go into Jamaica on the backs of two good offensive performances against top quality European competition, the second of the two matches being a 4-3 victory over FIFA # 2 Germany, who despite not fielding their Bayern or Dortmund players, were still flush with elite talent. The Yanks would take lessons learned and confidence gained over the course of the past week and apply it all to a lethal degree in their World Cup Qualifier in Jamaica on Friday night. Then Jamaica dropped their match to Mexico, and a little more than a seed of doubt was planted in my mind.
Jamaica is now winless through four matches in this final CONCACAF hexagonal round, and they’re hosting a second straight match at home after dropping the first one-nil to Mexico on Tuesday night. That makes the Reggae Boyz a desperate wild animal with its back against the wall. Very dangerous stuff, even before you take into account the treatment the USMNT generally gets from referees in CONCACAF away matches. Let’s just call it fitting that this match is being played on the day The Purge hits theaters. For one night only all crime is legal? Probably the case for Boyz-on-Yanks infractions in Kingston on Friday night.
So how’s it gonna play out? Let’s deal with the usuals, and then kick the particulars.
Series: Twenty-First Meeting. The United States leads 11-1-8. Of course, the one loss was in Kingston last September, where the US looked flat and out of ideas in the final third not to mention out-of-sorts on the back end. Sure, the Americans avenged the loss four days later– but for a few days, there was very genuine and realistic discussion in the United States that the net result of the Jurgen Klinsmann experiment would be a failure to reach the final round Hex. Needless to say, the US enter with a bit more confidence in the bank this time around, but then again, the United States have never won a World Cup qualifier in Jamaica, and have managed only two goals in five qualifier matches. Not the greatest numbers.
Weather: Gorgeous island weather, low eighties with very little chance of rain. Tropical Storm Andrea never threatened Jamaica, doing most its Caribbean damage to the central Cuba before heading out to the Gulf and becoming a radar blanket over the State of Florida.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
Remember that “cultured attacking play” we were promised Jurgen Klinsmann would bring to the team? Well it finally showed up! Klinsmann’s emphasis on possession has been easy to see, almost since his first match in charge, but we’ve been waiting a year and half now for incisive player and ball movement in the final third. The types of plays that would bring chances galore. It seemed unlikely that portion of the program would click into place against a bunch of UEFA Champions League defenders who play for Germany, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Jozy Altidore in particular played brilliantly, and in a match where he was under an immense amount of pressure, both internally and externally, to do so. Jozy was involved both offensively and defensively, but didn’t try to force his involvement (read: track back too deep and get lost when the US got out on the break). He was clever and quick with his passes and confident and thoughtful in his off-ball movements, and his goal and assist were things of beauty. His goal was a perfect example of what can happen when Altidore has teammates in good positions moving forward, he receives service and his movement off the ball is smart (See below). Now can he seize the moment in an international? And can he, you know, get the help (SERVICE…) he needs to stay involved?
So we know the task is to keep making those types of plays against Jamaica. This shouldn’t be impossible either. Remember the last match against Jamaica? The US dominated early, creating chance after chance in the first thirty minutes. Hell, Graham Zusi alone could have had two goals and two assists by halftime. As it was, finishing was the American problem on that day, a problem that was solved by a second half Herculez Gomez free kick sealing a one-nil victory (oh and I wouldn’t worry too much about finishing in general– if that was a chronic problem for Jurgen’s team these guys wouldn’t have made it to the final round of qualifying at all- the overall number of quality chances in the last round was small, but the goals were sufficient because of good finishing).
So the Yanks enter the match against Jamaica having scored six goals in their last two matches, and I think you’re looking at Fabian Johnson starting as a left sided attacking midfielder as he did againt Germany and Slovenia. People forget that the team had another of its rare attacking performances in that foggy friendly against the Slovenians. But to be fair, Slovenia was playing without Anze Kopitar on that day. So Fabian Johnson may be the USMNT left back of the future, but as long as DaMarcus Beasley is stacking breathtaking performances at that position, Fab can move up on the flank and really help the attack. Like most our readers, I like the idea of Brad Davis and his left foot, but Johnson brings a couple different dimensions to the position that Davis doesn’t offer. Johnson also is at his best when he is tasked with playing more narrowly (see: Hoffenheim), which will likely be the case tomorrow night, if Jamaica decides to replicate anything remotely similar to their defensive-minded formation they deployed against Mexico. More on Jamaica’s formation after the break, but essentially, Johnson will be tasked to play more narrowly because Jamaica, seeking cover for the young fullbacks, will likely find themselves 3 v. 1 in the back quite often. This means there should be space in the center of the pitch, and if Johnson is marauding centrally, the US will be in a great position to take advantage.
Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, of course, will roam the center, and if Johnson frequently joins them, the US will have a distinct advantage- perhaps even being 5 v. 2 at times in the middle of the field. We don’t expect Klinsmann to totally adopt Bradley’s 4-2-2-2 system (it would be shocking if Zusi is very narrow on the other flank, for example), but we do think Rodolph Austin will have a tough time holding up if the Jamaican wingers are constantly dropping back to provide cover for the fullbacks. Remember, Austin just had to grind it out against Mexico Tuesday, is not necessarily in full match shape after injury, etc– so this will be a tall order, especially with Jermaine Jones playing his best soccer in a US shirt of late and Michael Bradley being, well, MB 90 version Roma point 0. Paired with Austin will either be Je-Vaughn Watson of FC Dallas (who played active and sharp football for an hour against El Tri) or Marvin Elliott, who takes less risks than Watson but won’t offer much in the way of attacking initiative if he’s the chosen one. This is a troubling dilemma for Jamaica, and we expect the US to exploit it if Whitmore chooses to repeat the tactics he used Tuesday night. We’d also expect the US to allow either Bradley or Jones to make more runs forward if this is what the Reggae Boyz decide to do, because it is hard to generate attack in the center if you’re constantly concerned with cover on the flank.
We’ve discussed Altidore above, and there’s no reason to believe he isn’t the starter up top with Clint Dempsey tucked behind tomorrow night. Jurgen Klinsmann spent much of Monday praising Dempsey to anyone who would listen, and it’s high time the American got his due from national team fans. He’s paid to score goals. He does score goals. Of course he has his limitations. Only a handful of players in the world don’t. But he has, and the comparison has become fair, a Ruud Van Nistelrooy ability to poach, and he’s one of the Barclay Premier League’s finest players threatening off the ball. And now he has the armband. Heady stuff for a guy who was once a true mystery for his country.
Now as for the American defense, I really don’t know what to tell you. Geoff Cameron will be on the field. DaMarcus Beasley has earned the right to start on the left. Omar Gonzalez is the center half of the future, but he’s had two relatively poor performances in a row. And if you watched the defenders’ conferences that have gone on for the past two games while the ball was out of play, you can’t have too much confidence in this group that’s been rattled recently. Don’t get me wrong, I love the communication, but they’re playing “who’s the boss?” out there, and Tony Danza’s unavailable. If only there was an experienced central defender with acumen enough to tell everyone where they’re supposed to be and what they’re doing wrong rather than engage in theoretical debates mid-match… then we’d have something. We might not need Carlos Bocanegra to captain the team, but it’d sure be nice to have him on the field organizing the defense. There are rumblings about Brad Evans starting, and he played admirably on Sunday, but he needs to stay calm and avoid the mental mistakes that have haunted him in a US shirt. Matt Besler is the Americans best defender in terms of positioning at this point, but his caps too are limited, and this is a big stage. Can he remember his positions and remember to provide Beasley cover on the edge when Jamaica does threaten? Lots of questions, and Tim Howard behind them.
And what will we see out of Jamaica?
Jamaican manager Theo Whitmore has seen the future. That’s all well and good. But for some reason he’s decided that the future is now, and that’s a bit confusing.
Much like the US has mined the military brat Germerican pipeline for guys like Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, Whitmore has decided he wants to use English dudes with Jamaican eligibility. That’s fine, but he’s got two big problems.
Problem #1: Whitmore’s not exactly bringing Premier League quality to the table. These England-based new recruits play for teams like Reading, Huddersfield Town, Leeds, and Bristol City. So yes, he’s bringing English quality to the table in the form of decent players that can in fact hack it in some of the English divisions, but to characterize this English invasion as “quality players arriving from European leagues” is a pretty big misnomer. There was no other better example of this than the real one that occurred Tuesday evening. Pappa Whitmore wants a game-changer, and he calls on Leicester City forward of Everton shame Jermaine Beckford. Chepo looks at his bench, and puts the big finger at Gio Dos Santos, who plays a bit more like Superman for country than his typical Clark Kent for club. It was a tough and sobering moment. It was reminiscent of when the Jamaicans in Cool Runnings qualify for the Olympic Bobsled finals and then on their way to run # 1 they take their unpainted sled up the sledlift and see the Swiss garage, full of beautifully painted, ready sleds. As a strategy, it’s like inviting your buddies over for a Rocky marathon and leading the line with Rocky V. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Problem #2: Why the sudden reliance on these players that haven’t done a thing for the Jamaican National Team? It’s one thing to gradually infuse new talent like the Reggae Boyz were doing prior to this round of qualifiers. To cite a recent example, Italy just completely revitalized their national team and reached the Euro 2012 Final by finding the right mix of old reliables and shiny new toys. Montolivo to Balotelli, a thing of beauty. But check the Jamaican roster for the matches against Mexico and the US. No Luton Shelton. No Omar Cummings. No Dane Richards. No Jermaine Taylor. No Demar Phillips. No Shavar Thomas. What the hell man? Sure, some of these dudes are plying their trade for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, but is so much change really the right approach? It just seems like Whitmore got desperate a bit early.
Here’s hoping the US can exploit the internationally inexperienced experimental side that will no doubt be deployed on Friday night. In possession, Jamaica largely relied on long diagonal passes from Austin to a streaking Watson early on for attacking threat. Unfortunately for the Reggae Boyz, Watson had two particularly good balls to the center where his forwards simply hadn’t caught up to the play yet. They’ll need more up front from Ryan Johnson and an incutting Gareth McLeary– see below. While O’Brian Woodbine provided reasonably good support on one flank against El Tri Tuesday, it will be a real test of legs for the former Charleston Battery man Friday night. We also know they need support from Woodbine alone– because they can’t expect much from Alvas Powell, the promising but way too green to be in this spot youngster who was victimized repeatedly by El Tri in the second half earlier this week. What that means, then, is that Jamaica will either need to change what they were doing tactically Tuesday, or risk a situation where they end up with around seven men defending and three attacking, which would really deflate their attack. Simply put, Jamaica can’t end up allowing enormous shortfalls in the midfield simply for the purpose of cover, or the US will overwhelm them in the midfield zone (see diagram below of what that looks like).
If, and this is a big if– and probably the biggest argument for tucking Watson into the center with Austin– they can get support from both fullbacks and manage to keep their central midfielder spacing and avoid overloading certain zones of the field, they can threaten the US, but that is a lot of questions.
The reality is that for whatever reason Whitmore had his Boyz sitting back and playing zero ball pressure against Mexico on Tuesday night, just like he did in the 2011 Gold Cup Quarterfinal against the US at RFK Stadium (where Jamaica utilized so much cover from their wingers that they appeared to be playing a 3-4-3 at times), and that strategy won’t be effective against a US team that literally is begging you to let them play through the center so as to limit their weakness on the flanks. The Yanks carved Jamaica up that Gold Cup day in a beautiful performance still rarely seen out of the USMNT, and unless Whitmore can reinvent the wheel Friday night, another American win seems in the cards, even if we can’t guarantee a sequel to the “Bob Bradley masterclass” match we saw in 2011. Again, I’d be even more optimistic about seeing it if Jamaica had hung on for a draw against El Tri.
Jamaica Player to Watch: Garath McCleary
Reading midfielder/striker/winger McLeary played all ninety plus minutes in the Mexico match, and he exemplifies Saved By Bob Marley: The New Class. Garath is a decent enough attacking player who can hurt you if given time and space. He’s not the best of the newly Jamaican Englishman, that title goes to former Everton and Leeds striker Jermaine Beckford. But Beckford, who could possibly start this match rather than come off the bench as his did on Tuesday, isn’t the type of striker that can create on his own. He’ll be reliant on McCleary and his mates for service.
Stop McCleary (and don’t get outrun by Watson) and you hamstring the Jamaican midfield’s ability to go forward. If the Yanks can do that they’ll win the match… barring any more egregious defensive missteps of course.
US Player to Watch: Jermaine Jones
Y’all were expecting Jozy Altidore huh? And rightfully so. All eyes will be on Jozy after his best performance in the shirt since he hat-tricked Trinidad and Tobago. But as nice as Jozy’s Germany match was, Jermaine Jones is one-upping him for consistency.
“Germany” Jones is quietly stacking wonderful defensive midfield performances for country. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the team’s conceded seven goals in the last two matches, most of those are down to the back four. In fact, Jermaine should be credited with helping the American midfield turn in a much improved performance against Belgium after that position set got clowned in Brussels on Jurgen’s first European match as manager. He was brilliant off the ball in that match, and useful again against Germany, and he’s been quietly playing top quality balls out of the back that seem to find American feet in attacking positions. Right now he’s everything we could want out of our “traditional six” defensive midfielder. Now let’s hope it stays that way. As we know, Jermaine has a habit of disappearing or turning in a stinker once every few matches. For some reason (maybe blind fanboy faith) I have a hunch he’s found a way to put that inconsistency behind him.
Prediction: Jamaica 2 – 2 USA
Jozy finds the back of the net again, but the leaky US defense rears its ugly head. Simply put, all our objects in motion stay in motion. Here’s hoping I’m wrong and we’re all writing Omar Gonzalez redemption pieces on Saturday.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.