Jamaica's national stadium, Independence Park, is no Estadio Azteca. For all the Kingston venue’s many charms, it’s much smaller than its infamously imposing Mexico City counterpart, sits several thousand feet closer to sea level and, thanks to twin racing tracks around the playing field’s perimeter, exposes visiting teams to a bit less home-crowd hostility.
Yet the US national team is approaching Friday night’s World Cup qualifier against Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz at “The Office” (8 pm ET, beINSport, live chat on MLSsoccer.com) with much the same mentality as they did their trip to Azteca last month: Jurgen Klinsmann and his men want to make history.
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Much has been made of the USMNT’s undefeated record in 18 matches against their Caribbean rivals. However, many in the US camp have taken a different view, noting that the Yanks have never won on Jamaican soil in a game that matters – a run they hope to cap with a victory on Friday night.
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“Everybody is excited and looking forward to continuing this run of doing things that are special – the first time winning in Italy, first time winning against Mexico and if we beat Jamaica, it will be the first time there doing that,” US attacker Clint Dempsey told ussoccer.com on Tuesday. “We’re just trying to keep doing things that are special and try to qualify for the World Cup, because that’s the main goal.”
Conversely, coach Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore’s Reggae Boyz believe this is their best chance in years to end their tradition of struggle against the giant to the north.
Jamaica is riding high after Usain Bolt and rest of their sprinters dominated the Summer Olympics in the midst of the nation’s 50th anniversary celebrations, and their footballers are keen to defend home turf and set themselves up positively for next week’s daunting rematch with the USMNT at Columbus Crew Stadium in Ohio on Tues., Sept. 11 (8 pm ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, Galavision, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
Jamaica feel substantial pressure to earn at least a point on Friday, as they look to hold off Guatemala in the hunt for second place in CONCACAF Group A and the all-important berth in the final, “Hexagonal” round of qualification for Brazil 2014 it offers.
Always overwhelming favorites to take the top spot in Group A, the US would take a stranglehold on first place with a win in Kingston. That would leave Klinsmann’s team with seven points from their first three matches, a three-point cushion over the rest of the group which would allow a much more relaxed approach to the final two games of the round next month, at Antigua and Barbuda and home to Guatemala.
But they’ll have to do it without two of their most important players.
Commentary: Just how bold will Klinsmann be in Kingston?
Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley have missed out on this round of internationals due to hamstring and quadriceps injuries, respectively, leaving big holes in the USMNT midfield. Most observers expect Klinsmann to respond with a defensive-minded lineup featuring Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman and/or Danny Williams in the center of the park, while Jose Torres would offer a more creative-minded option.
Dempsey is far and away this week’s biggest wild card. Locked in a protracted transfer wrangle with his English Premier League club Fulham all summer, the Texan secured a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur in the final hours of the final day of the international transfer window. While he’s undoubtedly eager to return to match action for the first time in months, he has reportedly been limited to training with the Cottagers’ youth teams and should be well short of full fitness levels, though Klinsmann sounds ready to use Dempsey right away, perhaps even in a starting role up top or in attacking midfield.
“Based on all that information we gather over the next two or three days, we can see how we play him in these two very, very important World Cup qualifiers,” the US boss told reporters in a conference call on Sunday. “We are absolutely open to throw him in right away in Jamaica, if he's really in a good physical condition and he's feeling fine.”
Dempsey’s status will influence how the rest of the USMNT front line looks, with strikers Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore and Terrence Boyd all in good form at club level, and all capable of leading the line solo or in a partnership. Defensively, captain Carlos Bocanegra looks likely to pair with Geoff Cameron at center back, flanked by Steve Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson, with Tim Howard minding the nets.
As noted, they sit in second place at the moment, but the Reggae Boyz face a nervy conclusion to this group round and a great deal could hinge on their performances against the US. Jamaica have already effectively dropped points with their 0-0 draw at minnows Antigua on June 12, and they must still negotiate a difficult trip to Guatemala in October.
Beyond the pursuit of standings points, Group A’s dynamics mean that Whitmore and his men cannot afford to be routed in either match, as goal differential could eventually prove decisive in their race with Guatemala for a spot in the Hexagonal.
Klinsmann: US will go for “maximum points” vs. Jamaica
That being said, many are calling the current Jamaica squad the most talented since the one that earned the nation its first and only World Cup appearance in 1998. Ryan Johnson, JeVaughn Watson (at right) and Omar Cummings lead a diverse crop of MLSers who are unlikely to be fazed by the US or the one-sided history between the two programs, and several important European-based players have joined the cause for these fixtures as well.
"It's been for far too long that we have not defeated the USA and the players want this to change," Whitmore told the Jamaica Gleaner this week. “As such, they have been conditioning themselves and I am confident that with the players that we have and the form that most of them are in, we can get it done.”
Always athletic and physical, the Black, Gold and Green are a particularly quick proposition this time around, with the likes of Dane Richards and MLS Rookie of the Year contender Darren Mattocks blessed with more than enough speed to stretch the USMNT backline. The Reggae Boyz can be expected to push the tempo and try to bait their visitors into an open, flowing game on Friday. But the composure and focus of the defensive corps, led by Jermaine Taylor and Lovel Palmer, could prove equally important.
United States: Clint Dempsey
“Deuce” may not be ready for a full 90 minutes yet, but he nonetheless possesses explosive attacking instincts that few of his countrymen can match. His work could determine whether the US leaves Kingston with one point, or three.
Jamaica: Luton Shelton
Capable of causing havoc on the wing or, more likely, up front, Shelton conjured up both Reggae Boyz goals in their most recent match, a 2-0 friendly win over El Salvador in Washington, D.C., last month. On Friday, Jamaica's all-time leading scorer could feast on good service from his attacking colleagues.
GOALKEEPERS (4): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (9): Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander/Spain), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover/Germany), Maurice Edu (Stoke City/England), Clarence Goodson (Brondby/Denmark), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/Germany), Michael Orozco Fiscal (San Luis/Mexico), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland/Denmark), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City/England)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04/Germany), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Jose Torres (Pachuca/Mexico), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim/Germany), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna/Austria), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur/England), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna/Mexico)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Dwayne Miller (Syrianska/Sweden), Duwayne Kerr (Strommen/Norway), Jacomeno Barrett (Montego Bay United/Jamaica)
DEFENDERS (8): Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo), Adrian Mariappa (Reading/England), Dicoy Williams (Toronto FC), Andre Campbell (Waterhouse/Jamaica), Nyron Nosworthy (Watford/England), Shavar Thomas (Montreal Impact), Lovel Palmer (Portland Timbers), O’Brian Woodbine (VPS Vaasa/Finland)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Rodolph Austin (Leeds United/England), Je-Vaughn Watson (Houston Dynamo), Errol Stevens (Arnett Gardens/Jamaica), Jason Morrison (Aalesund/Norway), Ewan Grandison (Portmore United/Jamaica), Joel Senior (Harbour View/Jamaica)
FORWARDS (7): Luton Shelton (Karabukspor/Turkey), Ryan Johnson (Toronto FC), Kavin Bryan (Vicem Hai Phong/Vietnam), Dane Richards (Vancouver Whitecaps), Omar Cummings (Colorado Rapids), Tramaine Stewart (Aalesund/Norway), Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps)