Though this wasn't exactly the route Bob Bradley anticipated taking, his United States national team nonetheless find themselves in the Gold Cup quarterfinals. They take on a dangerous Jamaica squad that ran the table through Group B, scoring seven goals and conceding none while defeating all three opponents along the way.
The winner of Sunday's match at RFK Stadium in Washington will face either Panama or El Salvador, and the Americans would like nothing more than a chance to avenge the shocking group-stage loss to the Panamanians — the US' first-ever loss in Gold Cup group play. It will not be an easy game against the Caribbean squad, but the Stars and Stripes will have every opportunity to get a positive result.
The Americans have not impressed during the 2011 Gold Cup, but their recent transgressions could be forgotten if they can come out and dominate the Reggae Boyz. They certainly possess the talent to do so, but, as Bradley would say, they have failed to do the "little things" well so far. The passes aren't crisp. The communication is lacking. The finishing is off. The overarching theme: The focus hasn't been there.
Since the Caribbean side boasts impressive pace on the flanks, Bradley will keep the speedy Eric Lichaj on the field with Carlos Bocanegra in the middle next to Clarence Goodson. Steve Cherundolo is not the fastest man on the opposite side, but he's crafty enough to make up for a lack of speed.
The rest of the formation will look similar to the starting crew that should have scored four or five against Guadeloupe. (The most impressive part of that victory was that none of the six players carrying a yellow card picked up another, which would have caused them to miss the quarterfinal match.) Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will play starring roles despite missing training to attend weddings that may serve as distractions for an American side looking to rebound. Alejandro Bedoya played well in a stint off the bench on Tuesday night, a role that suits him superbly at this stage of his career. Juan Agudelo may make a substitute appearance as well.
The biggest key? Playing with a sense of urgency from the beginning. Really, nothing else matters. (The crowd at RFK, usually great, will help.)
The Reggae Boyz started their Gold Cup campaign with a 4-0 thrashing of Group B minnows Grenada and haven't looked back. A 2-0 victory over Guatemala — courtesy of two strikes from defender Demar Phillips — allowed Jamaica head coach Theodore Whitmore to rest his starters in the third match. They will be rested and ready for the Americans on Sunday.
The group that travels to RFK is one of the country's best sides of all time. Ryan Johnson, Dane Richards and Luton Shelton make up an impressive and potent forward line, while Donovan Ricketts is a solid, if occasionally mistake-prone, goalkeeper. The team's best asset is their speed, which could quickly create problems for the US.
Jamaica have never finished better than third place in the Gold Cup and that accomplishment occurred back in 1993. The road is set up for them to reach their first final ever. Now all they have to do is best a tenuous American team that is one loss away from internal chaos.
United States Key Player: Landon Donovan
The LA Galaxy star hasn't looked himself during the first three matches. Is he hiding an injury? Is he exhausted? Or maybe just off? No matter what is wrong, the US need him to step up (and a stellar performance will shut up the growing whispers).
Jamaica Key Player: Dane Richards
The New York Red Bulls winger is lightning fast. He could trouble the American flankers with a quick counterattack, especially if Lichaj gets too far upfield.
Projected US Starting Lineup
Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson, Eric Lichaj; Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey; Chris Wondolowski, Jozy Altidore
Projected Jamaica Stating Lineup
Donovan Ricketts; Shavar Thomas, Demar Phillips, Jermaine Taylor, Dicoy Williams; Eric Vernan, Rodolph Austin, Jason Morrison, Dane Richards, Luton Shelton; Ryan Johnson