Photo by ISIphotos.com
KINGSTON, Jamaica — A visit to Independence Park, otherwise known as ‘The Office,’ for a game against the Jamaican national team isn’t really an intimidating experience for opposing teams. If anything, the loud reggae music and female dance squads that entertain fans give national team matches a party-like atmosphere. The lively crowds that pack the venue are separated from the field by a wide running track, so there isn’t quite the closed-in feeling of other CONCACAF venues.
In other words, this isn’t Azteca, San Salvador, San Pedro Sula or Estadio Saprisa in Costa Rica.
That might be why the Americans have actually never lost a match in Kingston, posting a 2-0-5 record all-time, and why the U.S. is expected to come back from their trip to the Caribbean with three points.
So why has coming to Jamaica and winning World Cup qualifiers been so tough for the Americans in the past? In five previous qualifiers between the teams in Kingston, the sides have finished tied all five times. The most recent of those matches came eight years ago, when a late Brian Ching equalizer kept the Americans from suffering their first loss against the ‘Reggae Boyz.’
Playing here may not be as intimidating as many other venues in CONCACAF, but the atmosphere clearly pushes Jamaica to a higher level. They impressed at home in group stage opening win against Guatemala, and in 2010 World Cup qualifying, Jamaica won all three home matches in its final round, shutting out Mexico, Honduras and Canada in front of crowds that all surpassed 25,000 (Jamaica failed to qualify for the Hex by goal differential).
You can expect a strong crowd on Friday night, and Jamaica couldn’t have asked for a better time to face the Americans. Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley are injured, and several Americans have had their preparations leading up to this month’s qualifiers affected by club transfers. That could force Clint Dempsey to serve as an option off the bench tonight as he works to gain match fitness after sitting out the first two weeks of the Premier League season in the process of making the move from Fulham to Tottenham.
Despite those key absences, this U.S. team has arrived with the swagger that comes with having registered some impressive road wins in 2012. Winning games in Italy and Mexico for the first time has the Americans feeling bullish about adding Jamaica to that list of newly-conquered venues.
Their only meeting in the past six years showed how the current U.S. team could deal with the speedy Jamaicans. Fabian Johnson is more than capable of shutting down Dane Richards and the athletic Geoff Cameron can partner with the experienced Carlos Bocanegra to contend with Jamaica’s speedy forwards.
The big task for the Americans will be winning the midfield battle without the presence of Bradley, and dynamic threats provided by Dempsey and Donovan. Jurgen Klinsmann will need to turn to new attacking options and count on some younger players to provide offensive threats.
Klinsmann will need to decide how to field a tough and resolute midfield that can neutralize Jamaica’s attack while also generating enough offense. Dempsey would help provide that if he were capable of starting, but if he can’t, then the decisions get very tough. Jose Torres didn’t look like the answer against Mexico, but he might get another look against a Jamaican side that isn’t exactly known for its strength in midfield.
The more likely option, based on Klinsmann’s past decision, is fielding the trio of Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman. There is no attacking midfielder in that bunch, but Jones has shown an ability to get involved in the attack when called on to do so, while Edu and Beckerman have shown an ability to win the possession battle.
Will that midfield be able to generate chances for a potential U.S. forward trio of Jozy Altidore, Herculez Gomez and Brek Shea or Terrence Boyd? Without Bradley in the middle to connect the defense to the attack, you could see a disconnect that could leave the Americans forwards stranded. That fear could push Klinsmann to consider scrapping the 4-3-3 in favor of a 4-4-2, but that still seems less likely, because there just aren’t the pure wing options to make it really work without Donovan or potentially Dempsey.
Jamaica isn’t likely to throw waves of numbers at the Americans, because a draw wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for them. They are more likely to keep numbers back and look to try and force the action on the wings, which will mean a busy night for Fabian Johnson and Steve Cherundolo, who are more than capable of containing Jamaica’s wingers.
The match will boil down to whether the U.S. can stay disciplined defensively like they did against Mexico last month, but also generate more scoring chances than they did in that ultra-defensive victory at Azteca. Jamaica won’t dominate the possession battle the way Mexico did, so the Americans should have enough of the ball to find some chances, but that will only happen if the midfield Klinsmann settles on is capable of providing service to a forward line more than capable of punishing Jamaica’s defense.