By Jon Levy
Rarely do I have something randomly in common with both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey on the day before a big USMNT match, but on Saturday, all three of us will be doing roughly the same thing. Dressing up, enjoying catered fare and folding chairs, and making nice with people we haven’t seen in a while; yep, we’re all going to weddings the day before the quarterfinal with Jamaica. Thankfully, US Soccer has arranged for charter flights to get our most influential attackers back to their teammates in a timely manner. They couldn’t do the same for me? I’ll be getting off my plane just as the match is set to kickoff; in all fairness, the time worked perfectly when I thought the Yanks were going to win the group.
But enough of this prattle, on to the match itself.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
Bob Bradley will build off one of the successes of the Guadeloupe match, and field the same back four. Bocanegra and Goodson will marshal the central defense, while Cherundolo and Lichaj will try to produce a successful sequel to their blockbuster midweek performances on the wings. Both parts of the equation will be much tougher against Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz ball and player movement will look like calculus compared to the arithmetical “offense” the Gwada Boys were running, and Captain Carlos will have to add Clarence Goodson to his already communicative and almost innate partnership with Tim Howard (not that said partnership hasn’t had its notable hiccups).
The fullbacks’ task will be more straightforward, but just as tough. Jamaica has the ability to terrorize the flanks with speedy and skilled wingers like Dane Richards. This and the constantly attacking Reggae Boyz style means that the veteran Cherundolo and the national team rookie Lichaj will have to be more selective with their forward runs and perfectly positioned when defending on-ball. The former is equally as important as the latter, because I fully expect Bobbo to stick with his 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2, really), meaning that those overlapping runs down the flanks will continue to be a big part of the offense. To abandon them would all but doom the US attack, but to gamble too often will damn the defense.
I think this match will signal the return of a couple facets of the Yanks’ game that have been conspicuously absent from the last couple matches.
1. Physical Play – Some said the USMNT boys looked tired against Guadeloupe, some said they were disinterested. Either way, they weren’t showing off the fire and physicality we’ve come to expect from them, and that was a match of considerable magnitude! Maybe Bobbo put the fear of a yellow and a suspension into the four guys who were sitting on cards, but if that was the case, the Jamaica match should represent a return to your regularly scheduled USMNT programming. Look for the boys to use their bodies and get “stuck in.” Wouldn’t be surprised to see a few Tim Howard aggressive-play collisions in this one.
2. The Pacey Counterattack – You could argue that the US had little chance to execute this in the Guadeloupe match because there has to be an attack in order for you to launch a counter, right? But it was absent in the Panama match too, and the Central American version of the Crimson Tide provided ample opportunity for the Yanks to go end to end if they did so quickly and effectively. Instead the team got stuck too often passing amongst defenders and long-balling up the pitch. Jamaica’s swarming offensive style should give the US similar opportunities, and this time Bobbo’s boys will take them. Counterattacks and set pieces, that’s the old MO, right?
And what will we see out of Jamaica?
I’ve been reading about the attacking Jamaicans all week. Whether it’s a soccer reporter, blog, or an American player rhapsodizing about the matchup, a few things seem to be agreed upon.
– The Jamaicans will pressure the Yanks heavily with their total team attack.
– They will defend actively, with a lot of player movement, but not subject the US to more bunker defense.
– They are really fast and “physical.”
All these things are true. But if you read these facts alone, you’d think the Yanks were facing the CONCACAF version of Blackpool FC. A team destined to score a couple and concede a couple in every match. Let me dispel that fiction. Jamaica are the only team in the Gold Cup to have yet to allow a goal. Three straight clean sheets. Bunker defense or not, the USMNT will have to work hard for every scoring chance it gets.
As our fellow USMNT bloggers at The Shin Guardian pointed out, Jamaica plays a 4-3-3 that’s been modified to a 3-4-3, and they’ve been doing it really well as of late. A former Reggae Boy himself, manager Theo Whitmore has been part of practically every proud moment for the national team over the course of the past five years. Whether he’s been serving as an assistant coach, an interim manager, or a full time boss as he is now, Whitmore has generally enjoyed success with the green, black, and gold. Now he’s playing the team in a way that best utilizes his players’ skill sets, and Jamaica is seemingly poised to make a run in both this tournament and World Cup qualifying.
Jamaica Player to Watch: Shavar Thomas
The Jamaican captain took last game off (as did keeper Donovan Ricketts), and should be rested and ready to body up the Yanks from his center back spot. No chance of Jamaica being eliminated by the time the two teams meet, as Guadeloupe was before Tuesday night’s match with America. That means the real first team starters will be in play. Depressing, I know.
The Jamaican attacks are undoubtedly going to flow as they’ve been doing all tournament, but will the Sporting KC defender and his backline be able to hold the likes of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore at bay? That’s a question that needs answering. I’m still scarred by the Panama match, so if at any point you’re watching the semifinal, and Shavar Thomas or former middleweight champ Jermaine Taylor makes you say, “shades of Felipe Baloy,” you know the USA is in trouble.
US Player to Watch: Jermaine Jones
First off, I’d like to apologize for my pick of Landon Donovan as the player to watch last match. I’m not sure what’s wrong with him, but Lando was both boring and depressing to watch in the Guadeloupe match. I’m irrationally hoping his twin sister’s wedding can cure whatever’s ailing him and maybe reignite the fire we’re used to seeing in Donovan.
As for Jermaine Jones, no American (or German for that matter) has had a more up and down three matches in this tourney. He was great against Canada, fishing the ball out from the defenders and starting the American attack simply but effectively. Then he took a total crap in the Panama match, and even displayed the petulance upon being substituted that eventually got him shipped out of Shalcke 04. Tuesday against Guadeloupe was a mixed bag, with Jones mixing some of the positive aspects with his nagging weaknesses to create kind of a nasty cocktail that produced a nice buzz.
The onus will be on Jones to help stifle a comprehensive Jamaican attack at RFK. He’ll also be asked to once again provide a useful link to the offensive playmakers, and to support them by being available for back passes and making the occasional run forward. Jermaine is capable of handling the pressure and performing all these tasks, but if even one aspect of his game starts to go wrong… well, a frustrated J.J. is a really bad J.J. If he gets support from his teammates and things start off on the right foot, Jones could be the man of the match. But if things start moving in the other direction, Bob Bradley’s hook should be quick and decisive.
Prediction: Jamaica 2 – 2 USA (Yanks win on penalties)
The US finds its finishing, but can’t get it done in regulation. The Yanks haven’t been in a PK shootout since the 2005 Gold Cup final, and Tim Howard is ready for this stage. He did once eliminate a Manchester United team from the FA Cup on penalties, and those guys are usually pretty good. And last year- he sent Chelsea home in the same competition. So if we head to penalties– well– I’ll let Bob Marley explain…
Hold onto your butts, getcha popcorn ready, and remember that the platform is moving at the same speed as your vehicle; I think we’re in for a classic! I just hope my plane touches down on time.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate 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.