Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy
Jamaica’s stunning semifinal upset of Mexico hasn’t delivered CONCACAF’s dream matchup, but it has given a largely forgettable 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup an intriguing final between the USA and Jamaica Wednesday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California (9:30 PM (EST), FS1).
For all the fireworks the Mexico-USA rivalry has provided over the years, there’s both revenge and history at stake with Jamaica involved in the final, as the Reggae Boyz look to become the first Caribbean nation to win a Gold Cup. Meanwhile, the United States try to win its first continental championship since 2013 and avenge its surprising 2015 semifinal loss to Jamaica in the process. There’s potentially more at stake than a continental championship as well. Should FIFA decide to continue with a tentative plan to hold a 2021 Confederations Cup somewhere in Asia (Japan or South Korea being the most likely host), the winner of Wednesday night’s game would guarantee at least a spot in a playoff to play in that tournament. Given that Mexico have qualified as CONCACAF’s representative for the previous two Confederations Cup tournaments, this is a game that at least potentially offers long-term implications.
For the United States, there’s also one last chance, in the heat of a competition, for various players on the fringes of the US roster to establish themselves as fixtures or at a minimum, make a lasting impression on Bruce Arena. There’s still the business of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup to tend to for the United States, and all attention shifts to that goal come Thursday morning. But Wednesday night is one final chance for a handful of players to make their case to be included in Arena’s plans, whether in the Labor Day weekend qualifiers, the October qualifiers or the ever-looming specter of the World Cup in Russia beyond. For players like Matt Besler, solid performances at Gold Cups have helped cement roster spots before. That won’t be lost on some of the US players that take the field at Levi’s Stadium.
Finally, there’s the chance to compete, to don the shirt and play for the crest. That’s what motivates Graham Zusi, the fullback told TYAC late last month.
“The goal is to represent the shirt, first,” Zusi said. “You play for the crest and to win the Gold Cup for your country is the best way to honor that. That’s the goal. Winning is always the goal.”
Meanwhile, Jamaica, playing in their second consecutive Gold Cup final, will try to slay a regional Goliath for the second time in four days. “The best way I could put it is like the biblical story David slew Goliath,” Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore said after Sunday’s emotional 1-0 victory over Mexico. “That’s the best way to put it. It’s overwhelming, words can’t explain.”
Jamaica have played marvelously at this Gold Cup, free from the pressures of a Hexagonal and the disappointment of a “golden generation” of stars never reaching a World Cup. The Reggae Boyz have conceded only twice in five games, including two clean sheets against Mexico. They know they have nothing to lose, according to Minnesota United’s Jermaine Taylor.
“We’ve shown we belong thus far,” Taylor said. “But the pressure isn’t on us at all. It was on Mexico. Now it is on the United States. No one expects anything from us except ourselves. We play for each other.”
Nothing will come easy for the United States Wednesday night against a motivated and confident Jamaica side.
The TYAC Preview then.
Usuals and then the particulars. And a little “yacht rock”, because nothing says Gold Cup like the dulcet tones of Michael McDonald…
Series: 25th Meeting. USA lead 14-8-2. The two American losses were suffered under Jurgen Klinsmann, whose teams found the Reggae Boyz a bogey side. The most famous of these defeats was the humbling 2-1 semifinal loss to the Jamaicans in the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals. In that match, the US fell behind 2-0, thanks to some astonishingly poor defense and a stunning free kick by Giles Barnes. A furious American comeback was thwarted by a Reggae Boyz defense that entered the game having not conceded in over 4 matches, led by Leicester City captain Wes Morgan. Strong defense in the air from Morgan, and a curious substitution by Jurgen Klinsmann snuffed out the American rally, and set off a debate about Klinsmann’s fitness to continue managing the Americans that didn’t end until he was fired nearly 16 months later.
Bruce Arena’s first win in his second tenure in charge of the US national team came against Jamaica, a 1-0 victory on a cold night in Chattanooga this past winter. Jordan Morris scored at the hour mark to lift the US to the win. There’s a little more to that meeting than “February friendly” too – 25 of the players who could potentially play a role Wednesday night (16 for Jamaica, 9 for the United States) featured on the respective rosters for the tilt in Chattanooga.
Here’s the Jordan Morris goal, because we like goals.
Weather: Warmer than it was in Chattanooga. Pleasant and not oppressively hot. Upper 60s or low 70s. Highs have been around 80 in the day, much warmer than nearby San Francisco but it drops quickly once the sun begins to fade.
What to Expect from Jamaica:
A gritty, organized side that can cover a ton of ground defensively and have a magnificent goalkeeper.
Theodore Whitmore, a veteran of the Premier League and the coach of a talented Jamaican U-20 side, took over for Winnie Schäfer following the team’s disappointing failure to qualify for the final round Hexagonal of CONCACAF qualifying. He’s done a nice job ushering in a new wave of talent, including Atlanta United prospect Romario Williams, Portland youngster Alvas Powell, Tampa Bay Rowdies defender Damion Lowe, and midfielder Kevon Lambert, who still plays in Jamaica’s domestic league but won’t for long. Whitmore still has the “interim” manager label, but his familiarity and experience as a Jamaican international himself have helped him integrate the new faces into the team alongside veterans like New England’s Je-Vaughn Watson, Portland Timbers forward Darren Mattocks and Philadelphia Union star goalkeeper Andre Blake.
As always, expect the Jamaicans to be powerful in the air and fast in the channels. This isn’t a game for a slow, immobile holder and as such, the US are unlikely to consider pairing Dax McCarty with Michael Bradley, who still covers a good amount of territory but doesn’t move quite as much as he used to. Bradley will need Acosta’s range and pace for the US to be comfortable centrally.
The US were continuously exploited by Jamaica’s speed in the Klinsmann era – especially in the channels and even in wins – and just because the Reggae Boyz are young shouldn’t make this match any different.
What is different is that Jamaica are defending at a high level again, which was the chief complaint with the side late in the Winnie Schäfer regime. Schäfer wanted to pull the Jamaicans forward and pressing a talented group of players into playing possession soccer, and for brief moments, like at the 2015 Gold Cup, it worked. The problem was consistency defensively, even with imposing CB’s like Leicester City’s Wes Morgan, Jermaine Taylor and Michael Hector in the fold.
This team has stayed compact, playing an extremely narrow 4-4-2, with Shaun Francis playing as a pinched in wide midfielder to clog the channels and overload the midfield zones and Jamaican domestic leaguer Owayne Gordon dropped even deeper on the right flank. Whitmore relies exclusively on his fullbacks for width, and in the New York Red Bulls Kemar Lawrence and Portland’s Alvas Powell, he has the speed and technical quality to live with the consequences.
Kemar can hit a free kick too…
The strength of the Jamaican team is the backline, even without Wes Morgan, who has been in and out of the Reggae Boyz side since being suspended a half for “partying too much” after winning the Premier League at Leicester City. Jermaine Taylor is a force in the air and on crosses and a good emergency defender. He’s joined by Damion Lowe, who has impressed in this tournament and is a more technical, positional player than Taylor, despite playing in the USL. Both are decent passers, but more important, they’re decisive, ushering the ball to Lawrence and Francis, who are adept at carrying the ball out of traffic.
Jamaica are always very direct – but corralling their speed, especially in transitions – also makes this a fascinating match for whomever the US starts at fullback. Graham Zusi, who will have to deal potentially with Watson or Lawrence, was subpar defensively in his right back audition in Chattanooga, and had to rely a great deal on cover from Chris Pontius or Ale Bedoya (sound familiar?) One particular sequence (1:00 mark here) was particularly horrifying.
The result was that Jamaica were able to pin the US right flank back much of the evening, with Pontius doing far more defending than he hoped to do. If that happens again Wednesday night, and the US are forced to generate chances through the middle, it could be a long evening.
Jamaica aren’t as fluid getting forward, largely due to the narrow shape influencing the speed and tempo of transitions. Of course. the Reggae Boyz are fast, but it still takes time to come out of the shell and lurch forward. Whitmore has been willing to sacrifice speed of the counter for defensive posture, and he’s been rewarded for it at the Gold Cup. Don’t look for that to change.
Up top, Mattocks floats a good deal but is dangerous and, as noted below, is in savage form.
He stays behind Romario Williams, a battering ram of a target forward who has improved dramatically over the last 18 months, most of which he has spent with the Charleston Battery in the USL. Williams, named for the Brazilian Romario and born during the 1994 World Cup in America, was an All-American at UCF and has a capable shot from distance and a gargantuan vertical leap. It has taken him some time to adjust to being a professional, but there are bright days in his future. He’s also just fast enough to make Omar Gonzalez pay if the American CB cheats too much to pick up Mattocks. The US will need to communicate and keep a better shape.
What to Watch for From the United States:
Can the United States build on a complete performance Saturday night against Costa Rica?
Will the US remain composed against a Jamaica side that gets under everyone’s skin?
Everyone remembers the “Deuce-face” game fondly, but keep in mind in that game and at the 2015 Gold Cup, the Reggae Boyz shape and physicality caused the US to break down from a discipline perspective. This can’t happen Wednesday night or it significantly alters the US path to victory.
Bruce Arena has made changes all summer. I don’t think they’ll stop now – but what role for Clint Dempsey? And who starts at fullback?
And finally, can the US move the ball well enough to suck Jamaica out of its narrow shell, allowing them to create chances in the middle of the field? Or will they suffer the same fate as Mexico and Jurgen Klinsmann’s charges in Atlanta before that, and settle for cross after cross against a Jamaica side with dominant aerial CBs and Andre Blake commanding his area?
We’ve touched on composure but it bears starting there briefly and repeating: the easiest way for the US to lose this game is to lose a man. This is true of any game but it becomes a point of emphasis against teams designed to choke the spirit and life out of you. That’s who Jamaica are right now. And they’ve had success rattling the US cage before.
The United States have done a great job from a discipline standpoint under Bruce Arena, and even before that, were fairly safe when the bright lights were on under Jurgen Klinsmann. Keeping it that way is vital Wednesday. Stay red-card free, and the US have the quality to win the Gold Cup for the first time since 2013 because…
They have a massive advantage in the center of the midfield.
Michael Bradley is playing excellent soccer in a US shirt again, helping the US from a tempo standpoint and a positional standpoint, and providing cover to a US backline that was leaky until his arrival. It’s no coincidence the US have been leagues better through the center since Bradley showed up.
No longer being asked by a manger to play three positions, Bradley sits deep, provides a calming outlet and influence to the defensive line, and steers the US attack towards what the defense offers. And what he’s lost range wise is covered by the ground-swallowing Kellyn Acosta, who I expect to play in front of Bradley again Wednesday night. The US are better with Nagbe wide, and his mere presence in the left channel should pull Jamaica out of their shell a little bit. This could be the game for one of Acosta’s probing seam busters should a defender take a step too far or close a passing lane with Nagbe in it, only to see another US player attack that space.
The right flank is an interesting call, but it is instructive Paul Arriola has started two huge games under Bruce Arena – away at Mexico and the semifinals against Costa Rica Saturday. Arena likes his ability to take defenders on 1 v 1, but what he loves most, or so he told TYAC in Mexico, is “his constant energy”, which we read as praise for his motor. Arriola is a speed merchant, but he’s willing to cover for his fullbacks.
The question for Wednesday night, I think, is whether he’s “too willing.” Note the first half heat map for Arriola from the semifinal.
On the one hand, you see aggressive movement in threatening spaces. On the other hand, you see him being pinned too far back while covering for Graham Zusi. The two didn’t seem to have a great connection, and if Arriola starts again Wednesday, look for it to be him paired with a more traditional fullback, Eric Lichaj.
Our guess is Chris Pontius gets the call here, having played at length against many of these Jamaica players in February. He’ll have familiarity with their movements and tendencies at game-speeds and as a veteran, he’s less likely to allow himself to be pinned back as much as Arriola was at times against the Ticos. The solution to that in either case is a proper fullback, which in addition to Zusi’s struggles vs. Jamaica in Tennessee, is the argument for Lichaj over Zusi.
For Lichaj, it would be a second Gold Cup final start, and perhaps, this time, a chance for some redemption, as he was the star-crossed defender at the far post of THIS Gio Dos Santos chip in 2011.
Joining Lichaj in our preferred backline?
Well, it would be Matt Miazga again, of course, but it’s clear that Bruce Arena prefers Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez.
What seems certain is Gonzalez will start, and against Jamaica, he probably should. He’s strong in the air and on set pieces and provides that paramedic defense in transitions. I’m not certain Matt Besler has ever shown well against Jamaica, which is another argument for the more athletic Miazga or the rangier Matt Hedges, but Arena likely goes with what he knows and trusts Michael to shield them and Howard to clean up their messes.
The US left back will be Jorge Villafana again: he’s not the 1 v 1 defender Justin Morrow is but he’s better getting forward and in every knockout game, Bruce Arena has moved his back line incrementally higher, ratcheting up the US pressure and helping the US move the ball around better by minimizing the link-up gaps.
Up top, the US will likely again go with Morris and Altidore, allowing Clint Dempsey to replay the role of “super substitute.” It’s a role Dempsey seemed to embrace Saturday in Dallas. If it isn’t broke….
Plus, while I wasn’t nuts over Jordan Morris’s off-ball movement against the Ticos, it was better than it has been with Seattle, particularly when the time came to pressure CBs with the ball. I think the US wants to deny simple outlets in this game, and force Jamaica to build from the back centrally rather than allowing Powell or Lawrence to carry the ball out and forward. Morris’s speed seems useful in that regard, and if he knows he’s coming off at some point in the second half, it makes it easier to dig in and pursue.
Finally, a moment on Altidore.
Remarkably, Altidore’s goal Saturday night against Costa Rica was his first in international tournament play for country since 2011.
He’s been snake-bit by injuries most summers since, featuring for only 23 rain-logged minutes at the 2014 World Cup and playing – hurt and unfit – at the 2015 Gold Cup in the group stage before being mercifully sent home by Klinsmann for the knockout rounds.
Let that sink in for a minute, though. At 27, Altidore had gone six years without scoring a tournament goal for country. And this despite over 100 caps and 38 international goals. As influential (and important) as Altidore has been in qualifying, he’s been nearly as anonymous (though certainly not inconsequential) in tournament action.
Saturday night was a relief, which almost certainly is why he celebrated like he’d sent the US through to the knockout stages of a World Cup.
It also was a testament to his maturity and soccer acumen. As much as I harangue Altidore for his tendency to give in a bit when things aren’t going his way, he’s gotten much better at reading the game around him. His decision to halt his round for just an instant was vital not just to the space opening- but also the goal staying onside. It was instructive as to why, for all the griping, Altidore remains a cut above the rest of the US forward pool, even if only slightly ahead of Bobby Wood.
Jon Levy on the Jamaican Player to Watch: Darren Mattocks (Portland Timbers)
First off, let me acknowledge that I’ve gone off script and offer my deepest apologies to the man who’s been the player of the tournament up to this point.
I’m sure Reggae Boyz goalkeeper Andre Blake and noted TYAC fan was expecting to read all about himself in this section; he’ll have to settle for every other CONCACAF soccer writer rightfully singing his praises and speculating about his future. We’ll be doing those same things in regard to forward Darren Mattocks.
So why write about the Mattocks instead of Blake?
I’m going to blame the USMNT on this one. In spite of scoring a lot of goals this tournament, the Yanks haven’t really been great chance creators. Nor have they been “firing from all angles.” Simply put, Blake could blank the US without having to pull out the heroics he did against Mexico or even Canada for that matter.
Hopefully he doesn’t.
On the other hand, the American back line has looked a shambles for large portions of this tournament. I tipped Rodolfo Zelaya to dribble through the defense and Tim Howard bailed the team out. Now I’m tipping a much more physically gifted player (who’s REALLY feeling himself) to turn on American defenders and run right by them.
Hopefully he doesn’t.
Most of us know Darren Mattocks as an MLS player that can be electric on occasion. Relatively rare occasion. That’s not a knock either. He’s generally a useful dude to have on the pitch, and he can be brilliant now and then. Most teams don’t have a guy that’s consistently brilliant. That’s just reality. They can’t all be superstars. But in this tournament Mattocks has been treating fans to vintage Akron Zips performances. Like most good pros, he was consistently special at youth level, but most guys don’t suddenly find their collegiate form again against seasoned pros in international tournaments. That’s exactly what we’re seeing in this Gold Cup. The speed. The confident moves with the ball at his feet. The venomous shots and passes. Mattocks is suddenly in the form of his life. He’s playing like you’d play with him if you had Darren Mattocks on your team in a video game, and that’s high praise.
It’s the type of tournament-long display that could see him take his talents to Genoa, Toulouse, or Villarreal as early as next month. And oh, by the way, the things I’ve seen him do to defenders in this tourney should be nightmare fuel for each and every member of the American back line. Don’t worry about it Bromar; when you wake up in a cold sweat just remember there was some injury chatter around Mattocks before the semifinal. Then again, he played 90 plus after that chatter. Scratch that. When you wake up in that cold sweat, remember you’ll have Tim Howard behind you on Wednesday night.
Jon Levy on the US Player to Watch: Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders
It’s weird to think that Clint Dempsey is a player to watch. He’s Clint Dempsey. Obviously we’ll all be watching him. But what would we ever hope to learn. We know all there is to know about the guy, right?
Well, pretty much yeah. But this game could still tell us something about his national team future.
Most American soccer fans agree Deuce should be part of the World Cup Qualifying team going forward, and most likely the potential World Cup team that heads to Russia. But there’s an argument about his role with the team, and how he should be used. He can’t play on the wing anymore, and that’s no crime. I’m 34 too, and I can’t play on the wing anymore either.
He’s also not a target striker, despite what Jurgen Klinsmann might’ve told us for a few weeks in the summer of 2014. So if Bruce Arena starts Dempsey we’ve already got a few formations we know we can’t play.
Slot in Pulisic as your number ten and you’re down to an overtly centrally attacking formation that accommodates both a striker pairing (one is Dempsey) and a trequartista (Puli). That’s a fun formation I like to use in FIFA 17, but it’s not always appropriate for real life.
So with these factors taken into account, a growing faction of US Soccer fans that I’m a part of have decided that Clint Dempsey should come off the bench for the US in major matches going forward. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday night in Texas, and it worked. It worked a little too well.
Clint’s inclusion turned the match so decisively and so immediately in the American favor that we who called for using him as a substitute were left to wonder, “but what if he started that match?” Now we won’t play that game because there’s no way to know if his presence would have been so influential in the match from first kick. But we can agree that Deuce did more than enough to warrant his inclusion in the starting lineup for the Gold Cup Final. And hey, he did it in less than half the minutes, so he should be relatively fresh. Dempsey wants to play every minute in the big spots that lie ahead; he gets the chance to make his case in a really big spot on Wednesday night.
Prediction: USA 1, Jamaica 0. I think the US get an early goal, from Altidore, after Acosta finally hits one of those vintage seam-busters he loves to go for. That ends up being enough, but not without some dicey moments and some missed chances and Blake standing on his head a bit.