Cause for Concern for US in Back to Back Qualifiers Against Jamaica
I’ve said before that qualifying out of our CONCACAF region is full of tense moments. This upcoming set of games, back to back vs. Jamaica (at their place on 9/7, and at home in Columbus on 9/11), is an early example of how a few breaks can lead to sticky situations in what should have been a straightforward path out of our semifinal group.
Klinsmann has had to test his depth with this roster, and there are a few things worth pondering as the team prepares for the most crucial two games of his tenure.
Muscle Strains Depth
Two of our best three players are missing due to leg strains. Landon Donovan tweaked his hammy in the win down in Mexico and hasn’t played since in MLS, while Bradley’s been sidelined with a bum thigh for AS Roma since a so-so first start in their season opener. Donovan’s leadership, decision-making, workrate and ability to make that one perfect play that wins the game will obviously be missed. But Bradley’s absence is arguably more painful. The team counts on his two-way ability and he provides punch on both sides of the ball as well as a knack for coming up with big goals. With his backup options, you either lose passing and possession, or defensive bite. It is difficult to overstate the void left by the absence of these two and the experience they would have brought.
In addition, Josh Gatt, the Norway-based speed merchant looking for his first cap, had to turn down Klinsmann’s call due to….a strained hamstring.
Dempsey’s messy transfer saga, which saw him move across London from the Premiership’s Fulham to Tottenham Hotspur, ended well enough for his career. But all those months on the sidelines (since June) can’t have had a great effect on his form. Klinsmann will evaluate him to see where he is in terms of fitness and sharpness. Without Bradley and Donovan, we need as much out of him as he can give.
Glasgow’s American duo of Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu were able to escape the moribund Scottish club to greener pastures. Edu’s transfer to EPL’s Stoke City is a huge upgrade for his career, while Bocanegra’s move to the Spanish Segunda at least keeps his prospects flickering. But until now, they’ve been training and playing at a lower division Scottish club against poor opposition and in a place with a generally negative atmosphere. Bocanegra in particular has, according to reports, not looked all that great this season. Against the Jamaican’s speed and athleticism, that’s cause for concern.
Part Time Defenders
The biggest positive from the Mexico win was the centerback play of Stoke’s Geoff Cameron. He led that makeshift back line with the right mix of aggression and conservatism and handled the ball tidily – something we’ve not seen from a US centerback in a while. But Stoke has since played him in midfield and as an outside back – a tribute to his versatility, to be sure, that he can do all this at the EPL level. But for us USA fans, we’d prefer to see him getting regular run in central defense. Meanwhile, Goodson’s form has taken a slight dip along with Bocanegra’s. Orozco-Fiscal, Spector, and Parkhurst don’t inspire much confidence. If Edu plays, it will be his first truly meaningful game in central defense. Central defense looks shaky as ever. Thankfully Cherundolo and Johnson have had solid starts to their Bundesliga campaigns, so the outside of defense looks in good hands.
(A) Injuries to Bradley, Gatt, and Donovan. (B) Torres stinking up the field in his last few outings. (C) Kljestan’s last great performance as a national teamer came against this Jamaica team in the 2011 Gold Cup. (D) Kljestan earning back his starting role in Anderlecht’s midfield as they win a place in the Champions League. A+B+C+D = Kljestan shut out of this roster. I can’t figure out why his skill set wouldn’t work here. Klinsmann loves his two way, versatile midfielders. Kljestan can win a ball, pick a pass, move his team forward, defend his position properly, works his socks off and always moves well. Not sure why he wasn’t called in this situation. My one true head-scratcher on this roster.
Our forwards are in form. When was the last time we could say that? Jozy, Herc, and Boyd are all doing well in their leagues and will provide a potent combo up front. And despite absences lamented above, we still have midfield talent in Jones, Beckerman, Torres, Corona, Edu, WIlliams, and Zusi. Any combination of those guys is far superior in midfield to the raggedy corps that Jamaica brings.
Enough About Us…
Jamaica is typically an athletic and fast group of players with mediocre skill and a very erratic mentality. When they’re confident, they’re strong and difficult to beat. When they don’t bring their A-game, they lack discipline and cohesion. They bring a ton of MLS players to this match, and some of them are truly dangerous. Richards has been one of the more exciting wide players in the league for a number of years, and Mattocks’ athleticism up front is something to behold. Most of their MLS talent operates at the X-factor level – capable of providing a boost for their club, but not being the workaday, solid, reliable professional. A lot of their midfield talent operates professionally in Jamaica – a sub-par level of play that lacks intensity and discipline.
This Is How We Do It
It won’t be pretty down in Kingston. We’ll probably see a defensive-minded midfield combination more focused on protecting that shaky back line than pushing up. We’ll sit deep to negate Jamaica’s speed. Without Donovan, we lack a counter-attack catalyst so we’ll probably build attacks slowly using our midfield skill advantage, trying to get Dempsey and Jozy touches in the final third . Expect Fabian Johnson and Steve Cherundolo to make a difference as they get forward from the back upon some sustained possession. But we’ll be cautious with that due to Jamaica’s speed advantage. I’m going with 0-0 and a well-earned, ugly road point.
In Columbus – we need 3 points. Dempsey should have earned some better fitness by then. And I expect low pressure from Jamaica, who will be conceding the midfield on the road. It will be up to our mids to patiently break them down. Since rigor and discipline is not the hallmark of Caribbean football, I expect us to generate a couple of goals through open play in a strong second half and to come away with a 2-0 or 3-1 type of result.
Some good results (4 points) here see us through easily to the next round. Dropped points put us in a precarious position going forward. Only one acceptable answer, and I expect Klinsmann and the boys to get it done.
The U.S. first faces the Reggae Boyz on Sept. 7 in Kingston. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET, and will be broadcast live on beIN SPORT. The return match in Columbus is on Sept 11 in Columbus. Kickoff is at 8 p.m. ET and will be on ESPN2.