By IVES GALARCEP
The U.S. Men’s National Team has never won a World Cup qualifier in Jamaica. Not once. Ever. Not in any of the previous five trips to the Caribbean for qualifying have Americans returned with three points, and their last visit to the Island saw them suffer their first qualifying loss to the ‘Reggae Boyz’.
So why should you believe tonight’s Hexagonal Round qualifier in Kingston will be different?
It comes down to the two teams being in very different shape heading into tonight’s showdown. The U.S. enter with just about as healthy a team as they have had in a long time. The team’s top right backs, Steve Cherundolo and Timmy Chandler, aren’t around, and Herculez Gomez seems unlikely to feature as he recovers from a knee contusion, but for the most part the U.S. will be featuring all of their star players.
Jamaica can’t quite say the same. The ‘Reggae Boyz’ are missing several key players, particularly in their back-line, which has left head coach Theodore Whitmore scrambling for options (if not considering suiting up himself).
The Jamaica team that takes the field tonight will be a far different group than the one that beat the U.S. last September. Three of the four starting defenders from that victory aren’t even available for tonight’s match, leaving a patch-work unit that could struggle to contain a U.S. attack feeling confident after a 4-3 win against Germany (albeit a German team missing most of its key starters).
The Jamaica attack has also struggled during the HEX, managing just one goal in four matches. Portland striker Ryan Johnson will lead the attack, but it will be up to some speedy Jamaican wingers and Rodolph Austin to create against a U.S. defense that has shown some vulnerability in recent matches.
Here is a closer look at tonight’s USMNT-Jamaica World Cup qualifier:
So who is Jamaica missing heading into tonight’s match? Start with all-time scoring leader Luton Shelton, who started in the win last September, but who wasn’t even called up by Whitmore for the June qualifiers. Shelton’s situation with Jamaica is eerily similar to Landon Donovan’s situation with the U.S. The only problem for Jamaica is that, unlike the U.S., the Jamaicans don’t have a Clint Dempsey to lean on in the absence of their all-time leading scorer.
Defensively is where the ‘Reggae Boyz’ are extremely vulnerable. Don’t let the 1-0 scoreline from their Tuesday loss to Mexico fool you. Mexico created several good scoring chances, and simply couldn’t convert, and they created those chances despite not being all that sharp.
The absence of defensive leader Nyron Nosworthy hurts, as does the absence of fellow injured defender Jermaine Taylor. Throw in Demar Phillips, who is also sidelined, and you have a defense that won’t be nearly as tough as the one we saw last September.
German-born centerback Daniel Gordon is 6-foot-4 and looks like a solid player, and he will be called on to anchor the back-line, but if there is a glaring weakness for the Jamaican back-line, it is at right back, where 18-year-old high schooler Alvas Powell is expected to start. Powell has been thrust into a starting role due to injuries and he struggled mightily against Mexico.
The U.S. will look to exploit Powell with Fabian Johnson, who can not only press the wing, but also cut inside and keep Powell occupied so DaMarcus Beasley can press forward as well. Beasley must first ensure that Jermaine Johnson (or Je-Vaughn Watson) isn’t posing too much of a threat on the right flank.
Jamaica are very likely to trot out some variation of a 4-5-1, with Ryan Johnson serving as the target. Whitmore could switch to a two-striker set-up, and start either Jermaine Beckford or Darren Mattocks alongside Johnson, but with so many concerns about the defense, it is tough not to see him going with a five-man midfield to try and congest the middle and make things difficult for the U.S. attack.
The return of Jermaine Johnson from suspension should help give Jamaica a more dynamic midfield than we saw vs. Mexico, and if he partners across from Garath McCleary then the U.S. will have two quick wingers to worry about.
Brad Evans could have his hands full with McCleary, a shifty speedster who likes to float in midfield and who doesn’t necessarily stay on the left wing at all times. Left back O’Brian Woodbine also likes to get forward on the left, which means Graham Zusi needs to press Woodbine to keep him honest defensively, while Evans also has to pick his spots to get forward and take advantage of McCleary’s unwillingness to track back.
The battle in central midfield will be especially intriguing. Last September, Klinsmann went with an ultra-defensive lineup that featured Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman in the middle. Having Michael Bradley back makes all the difference (he was injured and didn’t play in last September’s meeting) because Bradley and Jones are well equipped to contain the Jamaican central midfield on their own.
Rodolph Austin will be Jamaica’s focal point, and arguably their best threat, not only from the run of play, but on set pieces. The Leeds United midfielder should receive special attention from Jones and Bradley, who will want to neutralize him and limit Jamaica’s chances.
Whitmore has some options to play alongside Austin, with Jermaine Hue and Watson among them. Hue isn’t as quick as Watson, but he is arguably a better passer from deep in midfield, and if someone can spring a counter with a perfect long pass it’s Hue. Watson is more of a dynamic playmaking threat who can push into the final third and deliver the final pass. If Jones and Bradley pay too much attention to Austin, Watson has the mobility to make them pay for that, which is why he should at the very least feature off the bench.
Jamaica’s midfield will also likely need to deal with Clint Dempsey, who should drop behind Altidore and float around the midfield looking for gaps to exploit. Marvin Elliott is an imposing figure in front of the Jamaica defense, but he will need some help from Adrian Mariappa to contain Dempsey, who has been on a roll for the U.S.
Here is how we see the team’s lining up tonight in Kingston:
PROJECTED USA-JAMAICA STARTING LINEUPS
Even though they are in desperation mode, and anything short of a win would essentially doom their World Cup qualifying hopes, Jamaica just doesn’t look equipped to beat the U.S. tonight. Their patchwork defense is going to struggle to contain the U.S. attack, and the team’s struggling offense will find it tough navigating through Bradley and Jones to get to a U.S. defense that will match-up well both centrally and on the wings.
Look for Jermaine Jones to try and get forward, and capitalize on a Jamaican defense that doesn’t always have the best transition defense, and look for a steady diet of Fabian Johnson (or Brad Davis and DaMarcus Beasley) on the left wing, trying to test the teenager Powell.
Defensively, look for Omar Gonzalez to match up with Johnson in a physical battle, while Besler looks to help his fullbacks keep Jamaica’s speedsters honest. Jermaine Johnson and McCleary not all that difficult to figure out, but they can still burn you if given the opportunity. Beasley and Evans should be up to the challenge, but some help from Besler won’t hurt. If Jamaica goes with a 4-4-2, and Whitmore starts a player like Mattocks, then Besler will have his hands full and the U.S. fullbacks will need to take care of the flanks on their own.
The U.S. attack should do well, even though Jozy Altidore could have his hands full with Daniel Gordon. It will still be up to Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi to provide service, and the lack of defensive quality at fullback for Jamaica should allow both to provide service for Altidore and Dempsey.
If the U.S. can avoid giving up dangerous set pieces, and keep Jamaica’s wingers contained, they should be able to create enough chances of their own to come away with a comfortable victory, their first qualifying victory in Jamaica. I’ll go with a 2-0 USMNT victory on goals from Jozy Altidore and Jermaine Jones.
What do you think of the match-up? What Jamaican player concerns you the most? Do you like the U.S. team’s chances of winning tonight?
Share your thoughts below.