Two matches in five days against the other top team in our qualifying group. These matches were always going to be important, but they’ve taken on even greater significance ever since Marco Pappa’s sublime free kick in Guatemala sent you scrambling for your qualifying schedule.
These could be make-or-break matches. Win ‘em both, welcome to the hexagonal round USMNT. Lose ‘em both, you can probably kiss your 2014 World Cup goodbye. But we’re probably in for a mixed result that keeps us biting our nails in the month to come. I just wish Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan (even as anonymous as he was against Mexico) were healthy and on the roster.
On to the happenings in Kingston!!
The Series: The United States has never lost to Jamaica in soccer, holding a 10-0-8 edge in the series. As you would expect, the matches in Jamaica have been tighter, with five draws and two U.S. victories. The United States have never claimed all three points in Jamaica in World Cup qualifiers, settling for draws in 1997, 2001 and 2004.
Weather: Hot. 85 degrees at kick. Clear. Very little chance of rain.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
Our boys will look to recreate the USA v. Jamaica 2011 Gold Cup quarterfinal, and not just because they won. That match, while played under Bob Bradley, represented one of the most progressively successful versions of the national team that we’ve ever seen. Bobbo strayed from his standard 4-4-2, opting for wing forwards flanking a target striker, and Sacha Kljestan doing his best Frank Lampard impression. And it worked! I know Klinsmann isn’t a big Kljestan fan, but that match should be our new manager’s favorite USMNT performance under Bradley.
Granted, after being caught off guard by the formation, Jamaica left Jones, MB90, and Kljestan acres of space in which to operate, and we can’t expect that luxury this time around. We should, however expect Klinsmann to stay the course after the Mexican possession clinic at the Azteca. Despite the absence of Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, the Yanks will have much more of the ball in this match.It will be interesting to see, however, what the US do with more of the ball. It’s the normal two options—attempt to get forward early and often through the middle with a more attacking center (Jose Torres), or be content to build possession and pick spots (Kyle Beckerman). For all the whining about Kyle Beckerman early in the match in Mexico, the reality is he did everything he was supposed to do: play responsible defense, get in on tackles and avoid silly fouls, and make easy, low-risk distributions.
We expect the latter, with a Maurice Edu pairing. For as long as he’s been in the fold, Danny Williams is a player many in the US press corps have wanted to see play inside—we don’t think this will happen—but his inclusion in the first eleven wouldn’t be shocking, and he’ll almost certainly play—a cap in this match would tie him to country.
Jozy Altidore is fit, his place at Alkmaar is not in jeopardy, and he’s had a pretty sound 2012. He’s also scored four times in his first six games in this campaign, and a brief rest last week hardly counts as a slump. We think he’ll get the nod up top with the renaissance man Herculez Gomez, whose ability to make late runs and find good positions will likely be a key difference-maker in the match tonight. Terrence Boyd will play—the question is how early—Klinsmann has not shown a propensity to substitute prior to the sixtieth minute—but the sample size of his substitution preferences in competitive matches is obviously very small.
In the defense, Geoff Cameron has earned this night, and while Stoke City are deploying him as a holding, defensive mid, the depth on the US team simply doesn’t make that a viable option (tonight). If Klinsmann does go that route, expect Beckerman to be replaced and Goodson to start, but the more likely scenario is Cameron is tasked with central defense duties alongside the captain, Carlos Bocanegra. This pairing will at least minimize the US susceptibility to the Reggae Boyz’ devastating pace—and it presents the perfect case study in why Clarence Goodson is limited against pacy sides, and if he is to play an integral role in 2014 proceedings, Klinsmann will have to adjust his tactics accordingly to ensure that when Goodson does play, the match-ups are favorable.
Our US Eleven When Toe Meets Leather:
Beckerman- Edu- Jones- Dempsey
And what will we see out of Jamaica?
Jamaica’s run of good form under coach Theo Whitmore is a lesson in not being seduced by offensive talent. The Reggae Boyz attacking squadron is one of the most talented units in CONCACAF, and they’d score even more goals than they already do if a guy like Diego Maradona was in charge. They’d also probably lose a lot more. Instead, Whitmore understands that his team will score goals, and that there’s a job to be done at the other end of the pitch. So the Jamaican midfield tracks back responsibly, and every once in a while it’s an MLS defender like Shavar Thomas or Jermaine Taylor that’s the star of the show, rather than the usual goal-scoring suspects.
As for the attack itself, you’re generally looking at three forwards creating width across the top of the opposing 18 yard box, and speedy midfielders overlapping in support. And with a defender usually getting forward as well, Jamaica’s got the second most cohesive offensive unit in CONCACAF. Jamaica also has power in the air, especially if Whitecaps rookie Darren Mattocks gets the nod. And the U.S. did look shaky on set piece defending in the summer qualifiers. But hey, we just held the top dogs scoreless last month right?
The main thing to watch is how high a line the U.S. keep against a team that has a pretty distinct pace advantage and the luxury of playing at home. The U.S. have talked and talked about playing a more proactive, aggressive style of football, and in some ways, they’ve managed to do that. But the two most impressive results of the Klinsmann era have seen a tighter, defensive-oriented side that soaks up pressure and avoids getting exploited on quick attacks. There really isn’t a quicker group of attacking players in CONCACAF than Dane Richards, Omar Cummings and Ryan Johnson—and they certainly will have their fair share of opportunities, particularly if the U.S. press with a very high line. Demar Phillips, whose distributions have been critical in the early qualifying stages, is out with injury, and even without Michael Bradley, the American midfield should hold a decisive advantage—but we don’t have to tell you that road qualifiers are tricky things in this dark little corner of the footballing world. One funny bounce of the pitch, and it could be up to Tim Howard to prevent disaster. And Jamaica needs the points—having only managed a tie last time out against the group minnow, Antigua and Barbuda.
Our Likely Jamaica Eleven When Toe Meets Leather:
Jamaica Player to Watch: Luton Shelton
The Reggae Boyz attack en masse, but Shelton is the guy most often the beneficiary of their flowing moves. Thirty-three goals are no coincidence. Jamaica’s all time scoring leader is comfortable operating centrally, out wide, with the ball at his feet, or without possession. He’s only 26, and is surrounded by speed and ever-increasing quality. Add in the fact that Steve Cherundolo has shown his age recently against pace, and this man could have an immense night.
Be afraid of all Jamaica’s attacking players, but be most afraid of number eleven.
US Player to Watch: Clint Dempsey
America’s best field player has been missing in action for about a month. He did something distinctly un-American with respect to European soccer in refusing to play for a club that revered him. But he did so in an attempt to move his career forward, and forcing a move to a slightly bigger London club probably qualifies. Now let’s hope, as Grant Wahl wrote, that he can move forward and focus on what’s most important: his play.
Now we’re looking at a version of Clint Dempsey that hasn’t had any significant on-field action since the Guatemala qualifier, and whose head might still be a little rattled by all the turmoil and upheaval that it took to take him the fifteen odd miles from Craven Cottage to White Hart Lane. Remember, hard fought transfer like this one, while a regularity for players on the Dutch national team, are still relatively new to the Yanks.
Best case scenario, a rejuvenated Deuce harnesses the frustration of the last month and his excitement for the future and put on a virtuoso performance in both Jamaica matches. More likely scenario, Deuce takes twenty minutes or so to find his legs and his rhythm. Either way, keep your eyes on Dempsey.
Prediction: Jamaica 1 – 2 USA
A month removed from history at the Azteca, the US make more history, finally garnering all three points in a road qualifier in Jamaica. A shorthanded, great CONCACAF road win and the Yanks head home for round two with three points in the bag. Goals coming from actual forwards, Boyd gets his first.