Editor’s Note: The original preview was written before the (now classic) late-minute additions made by Jurgen Klinsmann. We have updated the preview to reflect those changes. If you have not heard: Eddie Johnson is out. Clarence Goodson, Chris Wondolowski and Brad Davis are in. Enjoy.
No Dempsey. No Bradley. No problem?
The Yanks enter Friday’s late afternoon World Cup Qualifier against a recently more dangerous Jamaica squad without the two best American players. Don’t throw yourself off a bridge or make alternative happy hour plans just yet. Bradley and Dempsey will recover from their sprains and strains in time for the run up to the World Cup, and Tim Howard’s been handed the captain’s armband for the last two qualifiers. Could we see even more yelling out of the American goalkeeper? Maybe at the referee now that Howard’s the de facto team spokesman? I hope so. Timmy should be yelling- not making a save- in his eventual US Soccer or Everton statue. Two statues? Two different yells? I’m getting greedy. Let’s preview the match.
Series: 22nd meeting. The United States lead 12-1-8. Obviously, the Americans collected three points in Jamaica for the first time in federation history this past June, thanks to Brad Evans late-game heroics. The Evans goal built on the momentum the US gained in its Centennial Celebration victory over Germany, and helped propel the Yanks to the longest winning streak in US Soccer history. The streak ended in Costa Rica, but the US qualified with yet another dos a cero victory over Mexico days later, meaning that this game is about pride for the Americans, World Cup survival for Jamaica (who mathematically aren’t eliminated), and building depth in competitive matches as the Americans move closer to Brazil 2014.
Weather: Upper 60’s and seasonably warm at kick. We might see lower 60’s by game’s end, but it will be clear and a great night for soccer in what ought to be a rowdy Sporting Park. Fabian Johnson is on the training table, so no misery index for this match…
What to watch for from the Yanks:
We are going to Brazil, that much we know. Now comes the job of making sure we finish tops in CONCACAF, and take a shot at securing a seed for the World Cup. This is a long shot, but…
For those wondering- the Americans do mathematically have a shot at a seed at the World Cup, but the chances they actually get one are only slightly higher than the chances Jamaica earn a playoff spot. Grant Wahl breaks down why the math is poor here. The odds are so remote Wahl has promised to do a “We’re going Streaking Through the Quad” Old School jog through Manhattan if the Yanks pull it off.
So how do we stack the team for an important match against a Jamaican team with a little bit of hope? You’re probably looking at a backline of Beasley, Cameron, Besler, and Evans. After all, converted right back Brad Evans was the hero of the day in Kingston last time these two teams met. Aside from that backline, I’m not placing any bets on Jurgen’s lineup or formation, though I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him go 4-4-2. It’s either Donovan operating in the hole as the tip of a five-man midfield spear, or Altidore and one of Chris Wondolowski, added for Eddie Johnson at the last hour, Terrence Boyd or Aron Johannsson as a pairing. We have not seen any of these pairings to start a match before with the exception of Altidore and Wondolowski in one friendly.
But no matter which formation or personnel grouping Klinsmann chooses, I expect him to get this team back to Klinzy basics. That means quick ball movement, a high pressing line, and an attack that starts “fast! Fast! FAST!” when the US causes a turnover in the open field. Barring the obligatory once-every-four-years nightmare in Costa Rica, the Yanks have been finding ways to win, but they’ve weathered a lot of storms and slow starts over the course of the last four or five matches. If I know anything about how managers think, Jurgen Klinsmann is craving a comprehensive performance on American soil in which his shorthanded team out-classes Jamaica.
The United States could deploy a 4-2-3-1 in the absence of Michael Bradley, with Jermaine Jones slightly more advanced than Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi and Landon Donovan playing the wings, respectively. Zusi’s performance against Jamaica was impressive last time out- perfect service to Altidore on the first American goal with a man draped on his shoulder, good defense, troubled Rodolph Austin throughout. Austin didn’t like being sucked as wide as Zusi took him either, and making him uncomfortable is always part of a winning formula vs. the Reggae Boyz. Even without Bradley and Fabian Johnson, the thinking here is that the US is a great deal better (at least at home) than the Jamaican midfield, although FC Dallas man Je-Vaughan Watson is a player we like who can trouble you with athleticism and pace- something the US have more difficulty dealing with when Johnson and Bradley aren’t available.
Eddie Johnson suffered a knock Wednesday night in training- and there’s no word on how serious it is, but he will have an MRI today.As noted, with Johnson out of the fold, Klinsmann’s 0ptions are Aron Johannsson, who only recently stopped scoring (I blame the story about Celtic being interested), Landon Donovan tucked in and underneath, or Terrence Boyd. Boyd seems the least likely of those options since the two are not really complimentary pieces, but at least this writer thinks that’s a grouping that gives you great battering ram capabilities you might need next summer. It could be worth looking at that combination, if only for a brief while in half number two. We’d lean Donovan, based on experience, but here’s the rub– Donovan can’t afford to play too high– if he does he gets lost without touches for stretches in all likelihood because Jones and Beckerman will play deeper and more flat than Bradley and Jones. The two of them can’t afford (and Beckerman is uncomfortable, to some extent) pushing too far forward in attack, which means the US are more likely to find Donovan useful incutting or drifting centrally from a spot on a midfield flank. Bottom line about Johnson potentially missing the match: It’s not a huge problem, but it is one that will affect the match.
The Americans other option is to throw caution into the wind on home soil and reward Mix Diskerud for his performances in the last wave with a start instead of the defense-first pairing of Beckerman and Jones. In that scenario, you are more likely to see Landon Donovan on a flank and Graham Zusi on another, with Diskerud slotted a bit higher than Jermaine Jones typically is and Jones playing LCDM. There’s great attacking reward in this grouping but great responsibility on Jermaine Jones to stay deep and not get caught too far forward when Jamaica earns possession and breaks on the counter. This pairing also would require Jones to avoid being too fast, as the Americans don’t want to get in a track meet with the Reggae Boyz, particularly with a below-average defender like Diskerud tasked with getting back quickly should the Americans turn the ball over.
It is unlikely that late add Brad Davis was brought in to add anything more than depth. The same can’t be said for Clarence Goodson, who is still (sort of) recovering from an injury but is well enough to be a part of the squad. If Goodson starts- and he tends to perform better against teams like Jamaica that are less able to pressure and trouble the offside trap– the question becomes more about Geoff Cameron, who Jurgen Klinsmann said was “best as a center half” at Thursday’s press conference (We agree). Is Klinsmann so sold on Goodson as a long-term center half solution that he doesn’t even look at Cameron in a qualifier without qualification implications? That doesn’t seem likely, and the fact that Cameron has been in camp and training at center half supports a Cameron start. But Goodson played well in the Gold Cup final, and it isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that the Quakes man gets another shot at dominating aerials against the vaunted Blas Perez in the Panama fixture.
The other spots, for this match at least, appear to be set in stone. Klinsmann conceded yesterday that Beasley is a “lock” starter– the first such concession by the manager about anyone– and it’s well-earned. Sure, there are questions about his ability to mark elite level wingers, but positionally Beasley is night and day the Americans best option and coupled with what he still brings getting forward, that’s not a particularly surprising concession. Brad Evans has earned the right to win the other job. Whether he can, with a host of suitors waiting in the wings for their shot, will start to get sorted out Friday night. Matt Besler is the best positional US defender since Alexi Lalas. Felt good to get that off our chest. He’ll start, barring a MB 90 pregame warmup type incident.
Last thing– Jamaica will certainly play deeper than they did in Kingston, but their end game plan is the same- especially with qualification on the line. They’ll try to get out and counter lightning-quick. The impetus is on Jones and Beckerman to play flat across the center and attempt to disrupt the Reggae Boyz in transition, but it is also on the Americans to keep possession fluid and moving. This, coupled with the ability to deliver the ball in traffic when Jamaica does press, is the argument for Graham Zusi on a flank, rather than flavor-of-the-day Alejandro Bedoya. Zusi doesn’t have a world class first touch, but he is good at moving while in possession and he can deliver a quality, incisive pass when crowded- something that has never been a strength of Landon Donovan and is “TBD” on Alejandro Bedoya. Plus, Klinsmann is a sentimental guy and Zusi is playing at home. It’s a no-brainer. Look for Bedoya and Sacha Kljestan to get play off the bench in this match, but not from the outset.
And what will we see out of Jamaica?
The US helped The Reggae Boyz hit rock bottom in June. That meant the well-liked and respected Theo Whitmore had to go. So Jamaica followed the new American model and hired a German manager. Since hiring Winfried Schäfer Jamaica is undefeated. Sometimes undefeated means two draws. This is one of those times. That said, The Reggae Boyz sit on four points, with the ability to get to ten if they win their last two games. That might even be enough to improbably secure Jamaica a spot in a two-legged playoff with New Zealand if neither Mexico nor Panama finds a win in their next two games. So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance!
So Jamaica’s chances of still being alive for a spot in the World Cup on Saturday are decidedly low, but those chances exist. That means Winfried Schäfer, the albino-looking dude on the four month contract, will have sold his squad on other teams having “very little to play for,” and it all being “right there for the taking.” Watch for desperation. That could mean an early red card, or an early lead for Jamaica.
And don’t discount the fact that Schäfer’s already partially reversed the trend that proved fatal for the last regime, relying on lower division Englishmen rather than the true Jamaican core that did the heavy lifting for the national team for the past few years. Schäfer hasn’t quite got the band back together though; rather he’s picked over the healthy players that meet either designation and settled on his favorites. Jermaine Taylor, Demar Phillips, and Ryan Johnson accompany what’s still a large contingent of English lower league players.
As noted above, Jamaica is likely to sit a bit deeper in this match but with qualifying still possible, they’ll want to get out fast on the counter when they can. This should mean Je-Vaughan Watson starts, because he’s fast enough and can move enough in possession to accelerate the Jamaican counter when they get the ball, and it means Rodolph Austin, a bear of a center defensive mid who has put in a special performance or two against the Americans in his day, must have a mammoth match. The US can counter this with a Zusi start, because Graham isn’t particularly likely to drift inside as much as Austin would like– but Austin is still a good enough ball-winner to challenge young Mix Diskerud or Jermaine Jones for possession when the US press forward through the center, and Austin is a good enough passer to exploit the Americans if they lose the ball.
Who plays up top is more puzzling. Gone is the forward pairing from the Costa Rica match- Marlon King and Luton Shelton. Also gone is sometimes influential, sometimes dreadful Jermaine Beckford. This likely means Ryan Johnson gets the nod, paired with either Darron Mattocks or Doncaster youngster Theo Robinson. The Americans will be more familiar with Mattocks, as he plies his trade in MLS, but Robinson is the guy the Reggae Boyz have essentially chosen to replace Jermaine Beckford in the team and he’s the one in the best form, off to a dream start with Doncaster in the Championship. He’s a pencil-thin speedster who can really test a high line- and the Yanks will have to stay positionally sound to avoid being his lastest victim.
Jamaican Player to Watch: Ryan Johnson
Let me preface this section by saying that journeyman MLS forward Ryan Johnson is nothing special. He doesn’t even make my “CONCACAF All-Stars Minus US & Mexican Players” FIFA 13 Ultimate Team… yes I created that one weekend; judge away.
Sadly, that doesn’t matter. Johnson’s presence in the box alone is enough to give him a chance at scoring on a still mistake-prone US defense. Since the Belgium friendly in May the Yanks have done a great job limiting their opponents’ high skill offensive players. In fact the only goal that comes to mind in that time span was a self-made penalty in the Gold Cup by El Salvador’s Rodolfo Zelaya after his excellent movement with the ball forced DaMarcus Beasley into a mistake (read: “body check”).
Goals like that from mercurial players like Zelaya have been hard to come by against the USMNT as of late. But you can still count on someone switching off defensively every now and then, or the newly trademark clown shoes defending on corner kicks. If either of those two things happens, it’s a straightforward but savvy player like Ryan Johnson that won’t think twice before going for goal.
Ask the LA Galaxy how savvy Johnson is. Or just watch this video. Clever player.
US Player to Watch: Geoff Cameron
We might look back at these two qualifiers against Jamaica and Panama as the matches that won Geoff Cameron his starting spot for the World Cup; the only question: which spot?
Here’s the dream setup for the versatile and physically gifted defender/midfielder. There are significant holes in this US squad at all three positions that he plays semi-regularly for the national team. Let’s run ‘em down:
Center half – Omar Gonzalez is suffering from a hip strain and Clarence Goodson is also still somewhat injured; neither was called into the US squad. That probably means Geoff starts next to Besler against Jamaica.
Right back – We’ve got converted midfielder Brad Evans for pace and on-ball savvy, but still no calls for Chandler, Cherundolo, or (inexplicably) Eric Lichaj. Cameron could have another opportunity to make his case at the spot he plays for Stoke City.
Defensive Midfielder – Yes, Klinsmann favorites Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman are on this roster, but with no Michael Bradley this time around we could see Cameron playing the “traditional six” role with one or both of the aforementioned middies sliding forward. Remember how well Cameron played at this position against Panama? So does Jurgen.
It’s not a giant leap to think that Cameron could go from “Swiss Army knife” to “Swiss Army knife that has to start the game on the field somewhere,” though admittedly, the latter designation doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
What do we think? That he is a center half at the international level and he starts to prove that Friday night.
Prediction: USA 2 – 0 Jamaica
Jurgen Klinsmann gets his comprehensive performance. The attack generates chances and the defense plays tonight like a tiger. Goals for Landon Donovan and super-sub Sacha Kljestan. Oh you didn’t think The Yanks Are Coming was going to leave blog mascot Super Sacha Kljestan off the score sheet in the preview to his first match back on the team did you?
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 can follow him and his criminally underfollowed feed on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.