USA vs. Jamaica
Friday, Oct. 11, 2013; 6:30 pm ET
Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.
Watch on ESPN, UniMas
Two teams at the opposite end of the standings – and in diametrically opposite states of mind – will do battle in Kansas City in both sides' penultimate CONCACAF Hexagonal World Cup qualifier of the 2014 cycle on Friday night.
The US national team's participation in Brazil 2014 is already assured, though coach Jurgen Klinsmann has repeatedly urged his squad to wrap up the Hex with the same consistency and focus they've shown for most of the year.
Meanwhile, winless Jamaica are hoping that fortune smiles in their direction as they seek an unlikely leap past Panama and Mexico into the fourth-place playoff slot.
The US have rarely been troubled by their Caribbean counterparts over the years, as proven by their 12-1-8 all-time record against the Reggae Boyz. But their three meetings during the current qualifying cycle have been intriguingly taut and relatively well-balanced.
Jamaica stunned the Yanks in a 2-1 comeback win in their first semifinal round meeting at the Jamaica National Stadium on Sept. 7, 2012, a gut-check moment for Klinsmann and his men.
The USMNT took revenge with a 1-0 win in the return match at Columbus Crew Stadium four days later (pictured at right), then dealt the Jamaicans' Hex hopes a devastating blow in Kingston with some comeback magic of their own on June 7, where Brad Evans netted an injury-time winner in a 2-1 victory.
Their tickets for Brazil were booked in smashing style with a “dos a cero” win over old enemies Mexico in Columbus last month, rendering this month's final two qualifiers against Jamaica and Panama meaningless – on paper, at least.
But Klinsmann has steadfastly insisted that they are nothing of the kind in reality. The German-American boss stresses the importance of maintaining strong form, respecting the integrity of the competition given the tight race to the Hex's final qualification spots and perhaps most importantly, ramping up the internal competition for spots on the World Cup roster.
Injuries to important players like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson and – just this week – Omar Gonzalez and Eddie Johnson have complicated those hopes of more smooth sailing. Yet they also provide priceless opportunities for players like Sacha Kljestan, Geoff Cameron, Aron Johannsson and Brad Davis to prove that they belong on the plane to Brazil, and perhaps even in the starting 11.
Sporting Park will serve as the last-chance saloon for the Reggae Boyz, who prop up the Hex standings with four points from eight matches. While they still have a chance to sneak into the four-place spot and its two-legged playoff against Oceania champions New Zealand, to do so they must must win their last two games – fearsome ones against the USA and Honduras, no less – and hope that both Mexico and Panama stumble badly in their respective matches.
In the bigger picture, Jamaica are still adapting to new coach Winfried Schafer, the globe-trotting German brought in after Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore resigned following an 0-3 skid in June's qualifiers. Schafer has called in new blood like Colorado Rapids rookie Deshorn Brown and island favorite Jermaine “Tuffy” Anderson, a prolific scorer in the country's domestic league who was left out by Whitmore to the great displeasure of many fans.
Anderson rewarded Schafer's faith with an opportunistic late goal in the Reggae Boyz' last match, earning a 1-1 draw with Costa Rica that kept their World Cup hopes alive. Jamaicans will be hoping for more such magic against the mighty US, but must do so without veteran heads like Luton Shelton, Jermaine Beckford and starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who remained in the Portland Timbers' camp this month due to injury.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Sacha Kljestan
An established professional excelling in a skillful role for a top European club engaged in UEFA Champions League finds meaningful minutes few and far between for his national team. What's going on here? Only Kljestan and Klinsmann can truly answer that question. But with Bradley, Fabian Johnson and other contenders sidelined for Friday's match, it's looking like a priceless chance for the former Chivas USA star to state his case, most likely in a central role but perhaps on the left flank as well.
JAMAICA – Rodolph Austin
If the unfancied visitors are to snare their first-ever win on US soil, it will probably require yeoman's work from Austin in the center of the park. The rangy Leeds United captain is one of the Reggae Boyz' most successful exports at the moment, but is battling injury concerns in the leadup to Friday. If he's unable to go, Schafer could turn to towering German-Jamaican center back Daniel Gordon, who has reportedly been tried out in a midfield role in training this week.
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City) Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Michael Orozco (Puebla/Mexico), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes)
MIDFIELDERS: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes/France), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg/Norway), Jermaine Jones (Schalke/Germany), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht/Belgium), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland/England), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna/Austria), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
GOALKEEPERS: DuWayne Kerr (Sarpsborg/Norway), Richard McCallum (Waterhouse/Jamaica), Gariece McPherson (Cavalier/Jamaica).
DEFENDERS: Alvas Powell (Portland Timbers), Adrian Mariappa (Crystal Palace/England), Demar Phillips (Aalesund/Norway), Daniel Gordon (Karlsruhe/Germany), Lloyd Doyley (Watford/England), Shaun Cummings (Reading/England), Kemar Lawrence (Harbour View/Jamaica), Westley Morgan (Leicester City/England), Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo).
MIDFIELDERS: Jermaine Johnson (Sheffield Wednesday/England), Rodolph Austin (Leeds United), Marvin Elliot (Bristol City/England), Jobi McAnuff (Reading/England), Je-Vaughn Watson (FC Dallas), Romario Campbell (Waterhouse/Jamaica)
FORWARDS: Theo Robinson (Derby County/England), Ryan Johnson (Portland Timbers), Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps), Deshorn Brown (Colorado Rapids), Jermaine Anderson (Waterhouse/Jamaica)