USMNT vs. Jamaica games developing into Concacaf rivalry beyond Gold Cup

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Perhaps more than any other Central American or Caribbean nation, Jamaica have historically measured their relative footballing strength almost directly against that of the US men’s national team.

During current Reggae Boyz manager Theodore Whitmore’s playing days, it was a momentous 1-1 draw against the US at RFK Stadium in 1997 that helped the Jamaicans qualify for their first and only World Cup. More recently, Jamaica reached their first Concacaf Gold Cup final after defeating the US, 2-1, in the 2015 semifinals, before the Yanks returned the favor with a win in the 2017 final.

Now, as Jamaica prepare to meet the US in Wednesday’s Gold Cup semifinal at Nissan Stadium (9:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, UDN), they do so with 13 of 23 players on Whitmore’s roster playing in the United States, either on MLS rosters or in the USL.

For a nation whose development has been fueled by the North American soccer structure, these occasions offer crucial inflection and introspection points.

“For me, it shows the level of improvement, to see where our team is at,” says Jamaica and LAFC midfielder Peter-Lee Vassell. “It’s just to test ourselves.”

So goes the undercurrent of what has become one of the more respectful, but nonetheless interesting, rivalries in Concacaf. The latest wrinkle was thrown in only four weeks ago, when Shamar Nicholson’s thunderbolt decided a 1-0 friendly in Jamaica’s favor to sour the USMNT’s first visit to Audi Field.

It’s a decidedly different dynamic than the sometimes downright nasty clashes with Mexico over regional supremacy, or with a Costa Rica side that has felt improperly overlooked.

As different as the national cultures may be, on the pitch, the meeting between the Yanks and the Reggae Boyz is respectful – almost to the point of being familial.

“You definitely don’t underestimate them,” said D.C. United and US winger Paul Arriola. "Physically they’ve always been good, extremely fast and they’ve relied on the physical game. So for us, it’s just how can we control it.”

If there’s anyone who might be taking any extra edge into Wednesday’s match, it might be Andre Blake.

The Philadelphia Union standout won the Golden Gloves with Jamaica as the best goalkeeper of the 2017 Gold Cup, but departed the final early due to injury. In June’s friendly, he made several stops in a man-of-the-match-worthy performance to remind everyone of his potential impact.

“When you have those moments where you don’t get to play, it just makes you appreciate the game more,” Blake said after the 1-0 victory. “So whenever you get the chance to play, you just have to enjoy, you just have to make the best of it.”

His strong play continued from Washington into the Gold Cup, where he intervened on several occasions to help preserve a shutout in Jamaica’s 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Panama.

“Andre is doing what he does best,” Whitmore said. “Once we have Andre in the goal, the confidence, it gives the team a boost.”

The Americans will at least know first-hand of Blake’s skills well, as they will for New York Red Bulls left back Kemar Lawrence, FC Cincinnati right back Alvas Powell and his club teammate, striker Darren Mattocks.

The same can’t be said of winger Leon Bailey, the 21-year-old who plays club football in the Bundesliga for Bayer Leverkusen and is in his first competition for Jamaica.

Bailey hasn’t yet had the impact for Jamaica that some expected. US manager Gregg Berhalter hopes that doesn’t change on Wednesday.

“I don’t think we’ve seen his best yet,” Berhalter said of Bailey. “I think he’s got another gear.”