The United States has a pair of World Cup qualifiers on tap this week against a familiar opponent -- Jamaica. The odd qualifying schedule has made it so the Yanks play the Reggae Boyz on Friday in Kingston, then head to Columbus, Ohio to play them again on Tuesday. By the time that it is done, the U.S. (or Jamaica, too) may have clinched a spot in the hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying.
Recent history says that maximum points for either side is unlikely, though. The U.S. has traveled to Jamaica for World Cup qualifiers four times before and while they are undefeated there, all four matches ended in draws. But they should have no problem when back in Columbus, considering that Jamaica has never beaten them and the Yanks have racked up the wins on U.S. soil.
In fact, the last time that the two teams squared off was in Washington, D.C. and it came just 15 months ago in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals.
Jamaica 0-2 United States
June 19, 2011 - RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
Things got off to an awful start for the U.S. as Jozy Altidore pulled up lame in the ninth minute and had to come off with an injury that would keep him out for the remainder of the tournament.
Even without Altidore, the U.S. showed well in the first half. Admittedly, some of that was thanks to Jamaica, who conceded possession and only looked to counter-attack. Had Luton Shelton made good on either of his two chances on the break, the match might have gone very differently. Instead, he squandered them both and the U.S. went into halftime confident that their dominant play, which created a handful of good chances, would show itself on the scoreboard in the second half.
The U.S. didn't have to wait long after the break before their superior play paid off. As was the case all match, Jamaica gave the U.S. space to play into, and they eventually took advantage. This time it was Eric Lichaj getting free down the left and putting a cross that was cleared out, like so many other American crosses, but this one fell right to Jermaine Jones. He hit the ball first time from just outside 20 yards and hit it well, but he got some help from a deflection that left Donovan Ricketts helpless as the ball found the net for the opening tally after 49 minutes.
A red card to Jermaine Taylor for happening to be near Jones when he dove ended Jamaica's chances of a comeback , but that didn't stop Clint Dempsey from adding a delicious cherry on top of the U.S. win in the 85th minute. After Juan Agudelo did well to combine with Landon Donovan and get free down the right, he crossed for Dempsey, who was unmarked in the center. Ricketts came charging out at him, but the ever-cool Dempsey took a lovely first touch to round the goalkeeper, tap it into the open net and send the U.S. onto the semifinals in style.
What Has Happened Since
It might be easier to list the things that haven't changed since the U.S. and Jamaica last played than to name what hasn't changed.
On the American side, there will be a new manager and probably five new starters because Lichaj, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya aren't on the team for the upcoming qualifiers, while Clarence Goodson looks unlikely to start. Two of the Americans' three subs aren't on the team either, with Landon Donovan off the team as he battles injury and Juan Agudelo wondering what happened to his career.
For the Reggae Boyz, Ricketts, Eric Vernan, Adrian Reid and Demar Phillips have all been left off of the squad after starting against the U.S. 15 months ago, while two of their substitutes from that match, Keammar Daley and Omar Daley, have also been excluded this time around.
But while some might chalk up the turnover to the regular attrition of players over the course of a year, both sides have seen their teams change almost as much due to injury as manager's decision. Donovan and Bradley are both out because of injuries and the same is true of Phillips for Jamaica, who might mean more to the Reggae Boyz than either of the injured Americans because of Jamaica's lack of depth.
And then there are the players who are in the team, but are struggling for fitness and form. Dempsey hasn't played a competitive match since early June, putting the American's talisman in the precarious position of having high expectations and little form, while Jason Morrison will be counted upon to handle the center of the pitch for Jamaica on a balky knee. Nothing is quite straightforward for either side.
The U.S. is on a high after beating Mexico at Estadio Azteca and ending their hex south of the border, but also trying to solve that eternal riddle of how to win on the road in qualifying. They looked anything from inept to uninterested away to Guatemala in June as they showed off their superior talent, but also their struggles putting together a competent, consistent attack that forced them to defend for their lives at the end just to get a point. Even against Mexico, the U.S. didn't inspire any confidence in the final third, and getting three points away will be as much of a struggle as it has always been.
Drawing away to Guatemala is a great result compared to drawing Antigua and Barbuda anytime, anywhere, though, and that is what Jamaica did in their last match. They couldn't muster a single goal against the Benna Boys and they had a largely full strength squad, too. Ricardo Fuller was available, albeit off the bench, and Ryan Johnson, Richards, Phillips and Shelton were all in the team.
The Reggae Boyz' trip to was an unmitigated disaster and while the U.S. certainly did not wow anybody in Guatemala City, there is no doubt who came out the better side from those two qualifiers. There is no doubt who came out of the August friendly date on top either, because while Jamaica looked good in beating El Salvador 2-0 in Washington, D.C., that pales in comparison to winning at the Azteca.
Fifteen months ago, the U.S. proved to be the better side. They came away winners and impressive winners at that, while Jamaica was sent into a bit of a scramble mode as they wondered whether they were ready to make a run at their first World Cup since 1998, which was the expectation.
Now, as the two teams get ready to square off two times in five days, the Americans still have the upper hand. Winning at the Azteca, while meaningless in any table or really in any battle for CONCACAF supremacy, is a major mental edge to the U.S. as they get ready to head on the road again. Whether it be to Kingston or anywhere else, the road is less daunting than it was pre-Azteca. And then there is the part where the better team at the Gold Cup is still the better team, no matter how changed they are.