Thursday, September 6, 2012
Previewing Jamaica vs. U.S.
By Jeff Carlisle
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Jamaica's national team is trying to make history while the U.S. will be happy to see the past repeat itself on Friday as the two teams face off in a crucial World Cup qualifier.
The Reggae Boyz have never beaten the U.S. in 18 attempts, yet the team conveyed a quiet self-assured demeanor as it took the field for Wednesday's practice at the national stadium, not at all weighed down by years of futility against the Americans.
"Everyone is confident and ready to go," Jamaica manager Theodore Whitmore said. "We're looking forward to the big one against the mighty USA. We are prepared and getting ready to do the job on Friday night."
Whitmore's stance is understandable, even if history is against his side. For starters, the U.S. comes into the match well below full strength. Michael Bradley is out with a thigh injury while Landon Donovan will miss the match with a hamstring injury that he picked up in last month's friendly win over Mexico. Then there's Clint Dempsey; his transfer saga has resulted in him being well short of match fitness and while he's expected to play, it's unlikely that he'll start.
But more importantly for Reggae Boyz, there is a sense here that this Jamaica side is poised to do big things. Whitmore has been steadily constructing his team around a strong core group of players, many of whom play professionally in MLS.
"We've been fighting battles together over the last three years," Colorado Rapids forward Omar Cummings said. "There's a unity, there's a family sense, and so we fight as a team."
"A lot of players are in their prime and we have everything we need," Toronto FC forward Ryan Johnson said. "We have speed, we have technical ability, we have experience. So those are the main things you need to be a good football team, and we have everything. It's all about us executing on that day
I don't think [the U.S. is] a better team than us on paper. Hopefully we can go out there and show it."
Of course, Jamaica said many of the same things prior to its quarterfinal matchup against the U.S. at last year's Gold Cup. After all, the Reggae Boyz had cruised through the group stage while the Americans struggled. This was supposedly the moment for Jamaica to make a breakthrough, yet the U.S. strolled to a 2-0 win that was much more comfortable than the score indicated.
Recent results haven't gone entirely Jamaica's way, either. The Reggae Boyz lost a pair of friendly matches against Panama earlier in the year, while a disappointing 0-0 draw in a World Cup qualifier versus Antigua & Barbuda saw Jamaica drop two precious points against what is clearly the worst team in the group.
Yet the U.S. remains wary.
"[Jamaica has] tremendous physical qualities," said U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann during last Sunday's conference call with reporters. "They have a lot of speed in there. They are dangerous in transition, so I think we know what to expect. That's why we have a lot of respect for them. But at the same time, if we [play to] our strengths, we have a chance to beat them in Jamaica."
For that to happen, the U.S. must get a consistent performance out of its midfield. Dane Richards, Luke Shelton and Darren Mattocks all have the kind of pace that can trouble a defense, making it a tricky matchup for presumed full backs Fabian Johnson and Steve Cherundolo. But this strength can be nullified if the supply line is cut off. Jamaica's midfield trio of Rodolph Austin, Je-Vaughn Watson and Jason Morrison has struggled at times to provide the kind of service needed to exploit the team's impressive group of forwards. If the likes of Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones can impose their will on their Jamaican counterparts, then the U.S. will be in a position to dictate the game's flow and leave Jamaica's forwards stranded.
The absence of Bradley cuts deep in this regard. Although a shorthanded U.S. team was able to grind out a historic victory over Mexico last month, the Americans would prefer to possess the ball more and they'll no doubt miss Bradley's composure and leadership. But Klinsmann has slowly been building some depth in his squad and midfield is the deepest area in the team. This could be a time for Jose Torres to show off his undeniable ability on the ball, but his tepid performance against Mexico has cast doubt on whether he is the player to step up and deliver.
"Our goal is to go from game to game and become more consistent, become more efficient and hopefully give the players tools in how to be more consistent," Klinsmann said. "There's a mental side of it, there's a physical side of it, there's a lifestyle side of it. There are so many elements that play into that whole thing and we are trying to develop that."
The playing surface at the national stadium, a venue affectionately known in Jamaican circles as "The Office," could hinder that aim. Close inspection revealed a pitch that looked bumpy and nothing like the surfaces upon which the U.S. players are used to performing. Even Johnson conceded that the field "isn't really a fast-moving pitch, so the ball can get stuck underneath your feet sometimes." But the Reggae Boyz remain hopeful that their familiarity with the stadium, plus a big crowd, will propel them to a historic win.
"When you go to the office in business, the boss is in charge," Whitmore said. "That's how we got the name, 'The Office.' We are hard to beat here, especially in my time. We want to maintain that."
The U.S. has yet to beat Jamaica away in a World Cup qualifier but it's also never lost. Last month, the Americans made history in Mexico. Another historic win would enable the U.S. to book its ticket into the next round.