One of the underlying, undying narrative themes when it comes to dealing with the United States National Team is the difficulty of trying to notch results on the road in CONCACAF. Sometimes it’s taken to extremes, as pundits tend to paint traveling to places like San Pedro Sula, San Jose and everywhere in between as a treacherous journey akin to a 17th century explorer trying to circumnavigate the globe using a rusty compass and a broken sextant.
It’s often hard to wrap your mind around. On the one hand the nations of CONCACAF aren’t exactly world powers, yet they do own a sizable homefield advantage thanks to tropical heat, boisterous home crowds and field conditions that would send a shiver down Hank Hill’s spine. When the final CONCACAF Hexagonal schedule was released last fall the United State’s ability to get results on the road was a major topic since three of the first four matches for Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad were away from American soil.
On paper the most winnable of those three is Friday night’s game against Jamaica in Kingston (9:30 p.m. beIN SPORT). The Reggae Boyz qualifying hopes are hanging by a thread and seem to be the weakest of the six remaining teams in the region, sitting in last place with only two points from four matches. The United States is 1-1-1 after its first three matches.
Still, penciling in three points for the U.S. is a risky proposition considering the team’s continual hiccups, mental lapses and defensive frailties. A question for Klinsmann in approaching the game is playing it conservatively with a defensive approach to absorb pressure from Jamaica and try to nick something on the counter attack, or does the German-born coach go a little more go-hung, taking the game to the opponent. Jamaica has only scored once in four qualifiers, though it had numerous goal-mouth chances Tuesday night in its 1-0 loss to Mexico. The Reggae Boyz were indeed dangerous vs. Mexico, though their attack felt disjointed and very direct.
Whichever way you want to look at it, this is a match the U.S. should find a way to win. The time for Klinsmann talking about a “process” and “development” is long gone. It’s nice to win friendlies vs. Germany, but this is a game that counts and three points here would allay a lot of concerns lingering about the team. Three points against Jamaica moves the U.S., at best, atop the group. At worst, it keeps the pace and sets them up to move away from the pack with the upcoming home qualifiers in the next 10 days against Panama and Honduras.
A complete, professional, assured 90 minutes on the road shouldn’t be too much to ask for at this point in U.S. Soccer’s now 100-year history, is it? Nobody, be it fans or folks in the USSF, are going to take bows or boast about beating Jamaica, but this is what it’s seemingly come to for the squad.
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Arguably the worst match of the Klinsmann era came when the U.S. lost 2-1 in Kingston last September, despite a goal from Clint Dempsey in the first minute. That night, with Michael Bradley injured, Klinsmann opted for his dread three-man destroyer midfield, with Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu getting the nods. The lineup flopped as the U.S. looked as disjointed as it ever has with Klinsmann in charge, which is saying something.
At the same time, as we tend to focus on the U.S. performance, Jamaica deserved the win that night. Theodore Whitemore’s coaching plan worked to perfection, using the Reggae Boyz physicality and speed to fluster the American at every turn. Hard to see that happening again, as they exploited Jones’ aggressiveness last October, while in 2013 the German-American seems like a different, more composed player.
The U.S. played much better a few days later vs. Jamaica in Kansas City creating numerous chances throughout the match, but only won 1-0 thanks to a free kick by Herculez Gomez. (It was also the game that produced the “Dempsey face” meme.)
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Jozy Altidore broke his nearly two-year international scoring slump Sunday against Germany and looked reborn. Dempsey has been on-fire for the U.S. in 2013, bagging five goals this year for the U.S. Donovan Ricketts does represent an imposing figure in net for Jamaica, but the America duo should be able to find space in a defense led by Reading’s Adrian Mariappa. If the pair can share the scoring load, with the occasional contribution from a defender on a set piece or something from Michael Bradley, the U.S. chances improve dramatically through qualifying.
There’s nothing left for Tim Howard to prove for the United States. His heroic saves have bailed out the team time after time. In the loss to Jamaica last year he was beaten twice on freekicks. In the loss to Honduras and the friendlies last week vs. Belgium and Germany the Everton No. 1 wasn’t his usual sharp self. Howard is still the clear first-choice for Klinsmann, despite Brad Guzan’s fine season at Aston Villa. Considering the American’s defensive concerns, they need Howard at the top of his game. There is no room for sloppiness.
Lineup Guess (4-2-3-1):
GK — Howard
DEF — Cameron — Gonzalez — Besler — Beasley
MID — Zusi — Jones — Dempsey — Bradley — F. Johnson
FOR — Altidore
Jamaica is desperate for a win. Anything but three points and the Reggae Boyz Brazilian dream is all but over. As we’ve seen, desperation doesn’t tend to help in soccer, especially in front of a home crowd which figures to be antsy from the onset, particularly with national hero Usain Bolt losing a race to American Justin Gatlin on Thursday. The burden will be on Jamaica, not the U.S., for most of the night which should bode well for Klinsmann & Co. … United States 2, Jamaica 1
[Photo by Getty]