For the second consecutive Gold Cup, Jamaica have made the final. Bear that in mind on Wednesday night when they square off against the US national team (9:30 pm ET; FS1, Univision, UDN) at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. The Reggae Boyz are prohibitive underdogs – I'll be very, very surprised if they win – but they're not here by mistake.
Get to the final once? Maybe you just got hot at the right time. Do it twice in a row, with a win over the US in one, and then a win over Mexico in the other, under two different coaches and with two rosters that had minimal overlap? That means system-wide, something's going right.
It's probably kind of easy to forget or dismiss that simply because Jamaica did not make the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal, which is the dance everybody in the region really wants to get to. But this dance matters as well, and their win over the US in 2015 was historic, and their win over Mexico on Sunday was perhaps even more historic, and they're potentially 90 minutes away from becoming just the fourth team in history to win the Gold Cup.
This is a big game. Jamaica will be out for blood and glory, as they should be. The US have to match that intensity from the start – something they managed against Costa Rica, but struggled with in the previous four games.
What Jamaica Will Do
• Flat, deep 4-4-2 that gums up the middle and funnels play out wide
"Catenaccio" was invented in Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It translates literally as "the chain" and refers to a back five defense that moves together, like they've been chained together. They sit deep and central, take few risks, try to destroy the game, then hit on counters or on set pieces.
Playing in that manner has been derisively called "the right of the weak," which I agree with on one level (it's absolutely their right, and in general weaker teams are smart to play such a defensive style), but not on the other (I kind of hate when people bag on underdogs for bunkering. I mean, of course they're going to bunker! If a minnow like England play a giant like France, how much do you really expect them to have the ball?)
Jamaica don't go with the back five, but the 4-4-2 in the way they play it is about as pure a bunker as you can find, and is emblematic of modern catenaccio. Against Mexico in the semifinals they held 31.5 percent of the possession and made 27 clearances, the majority of which were in their own box. El Tri had 68.5 percent possession (math!) and made... five clearances, four of which were in their own box. One team had the ball a ton and pushed the game forward while the other had it almost not at all and organized a "last line of defense" strategy. Look at this heat map:
(As pointed out elsewhere: Funny in 2014, funny now.)
This was smart! And it worked! The Reggae Boyz have arguably the best shot-stopper in the region in goal, and Andre Blake has a claim on the tournament's Golden Ball, and so their gamble is that they can get further by playing deep in defense, letting him gobble up shots and come off his line for crosses, and keep that zero on the board.
Mexico, of course, took the bait. One of the fatal flaws of Juan Carlos Osorio's teams is how slow (of mind, not foot) and indecisive they are in the attacking third, a malady that I believe is born from his constant need to tinker with lineups and formations and new players in wrong places. Whatever its genesis, that inability to move the ball quickly – to create gaps, and then hit them – meant that El Tri were constantly pushed out to the wings, and from there they lofted in 36 crosses.
Erick "Cubo" Torres probably should've scored one of them in the first half, and Jesus Gallardo definitely should've gotten one in the second, but even if they had and Jamaica had lost valiantly instead of winning memorably, Mexico pundits and fans would've been right to criticize the way JCO's team played. There are better chances to be found and created by being quick and decisive with combo play around the area, and while that's easier said than done and comes with the risk of turnovers in bad spots, in this game it generally pays to be brave.
US fans should hope Bruce Arena's watched the tapes and has come to the same conclusion, especially after a wing-heavy US team finally battered down Costa Rica's doors in the semis via, yes, quick combination play in the middle of the field.
In attack, Jamaica get a little more dap for their counter than they're probably due. They have a number of guys who can get out and fly, and forwards Darren Mattocks and Romario Williams have both been tireless. But they lack an instinctive, incisive provider of the final ball, and have since Andy Williams retired a decade ago.
No, the place to fear Jamaica is on restarts. Whether it's direct, a la Kemar Lawrence's winner vs. Mexico, or off a corner or even a throw-in, they are skilled, well-drilled, and dangerous.
What The US Will Do
• Front-foot 4-4-1-1 with Clint Dempsey dropping in to playmaker
I'm guessing here, really. But 1) Jordan Morris, who struggles in combination play (though he did have one wonderful pass on Saturday), will be of limited utility against Jamaica, and 2) Dempsey lives for combination play.
If the US start holding the ball in central midfield, and Jozy Altidore is disciplined enough to stay high and central and make occasional direct runs, this will be the first part of a problem for the Reggae Boyz. The second part has to come either from the wingers hitting the "B" Gap (the gaps between the fullbacks and center backs) or the No. 8 (my guess is Kellyn Acosta will get another look) making delayed runs off of all that action.
Acosta has a facility for that, remember. He nearly picked up a couple of goals against the Ticos, and has grabbed a few in MLS and CCL play against packed-in defenses this year already.
So basically, it comes down to this (volume up for analysis):
There will be some unpleasant moments for the US, of a certainty. There will also be a mandate to push the fullbacks higher more often, which could leave the center backs exposed against the speed of Mattocks and Williams.
But no risk, no reward. This is a final the US should win, and they have to play to win. That means going on the attack and figuring out how to crack open a defense that's conceded just twice this month. Audentes fortuna iuvat.
A few other notes:
• A big US lack in this particular player pool is goalscoring wingers. Darlington Nagbe doesn't make the kind of runs in the final third that unlock defenses, Paul Arriola is more of an open-field, third-man-in threat, and Gyasi Zardes tends to favor 1-2s rather than pure, lurking, off-the-ball work.
That means we could perhaps see Morris line up at left wing, even in a sort of pseudo 4-2-1-3. Dempsey would be the "1" with the front three of Morris – Altidore – Arriola.
That seems adventuresome, but Arena's really mixed-and-matched with lineups and formations since January.
This is also another chance for me to say I really wish Kelyn Rowe was still with this group.
• The crosses that worked against Jamaica tended to be ones that came off an inside-out build-up (rather than just a direct build down the line), and ones in which there was a runner off of Damion Lowe's back shoulder. Lowe has his strengths and can be dominant when the game is unfolding in front of him, but he doesn't seem to have 360 degree awareness.
• I have this weird suspicion that we're going to see Juan Agudelo in this game. I've just sort of assumed Dempsey would start, but a 4-4-2 with both Agudelo and Altidore on the front line gives the US a ton of hold-up play and creativity around the box, which will suck the Jamaican defenders into the middle and perhaps open lanes for guys like Arriola to get to the endline and then hit pullbacks against a scrambling defense, rather than pure from-the-touchline crosses.
• Jamaica were not at full strength against Mexico, remember. They were without central midfielder Kevon Lambert, who A) missed the game via suspension, and B) needs to be in MLS yesterday. The 20-year-old will certainly be starting against the US, and that will give the Reggae Boyz yet more strength on re-starts.
What are your thoughts? Fire away in the comments section and I'll be around periodically to get into flame wars with y'all.