At first glance, it looked like Jurgen Klinsmann was taking a major chance. He dropped Steve Cherundolo for Michael Parkhurst and Carlos Bocanegra for Clarence Goodson. His team was being called a 4-4-2 and the players looked like they were going to be asked to play a little bit different than they had in the past.
Immediately, my mind flashed back to 2009 when Bob Bradley turned his team inside out and went to Saprissa to play Costa Rica with personnel and a formation that we had never seen from the U.S. That went horribly for the U.S. Would Friday night in Jamaica turn out the same way?
As the match got underway, even after a tremendous start with a goal within a minute, it was clear that this wasn't a very different U.S. team than we had seen before under Klinsmann. Parkhurst was only in the team because Cherundolo was hurt, but he played the same role of Cherundolo and played it well. Goodson wasn't asked to do anything different than what Bocanegra would do and he also played well. The team also wasn't in a 4-4-2 or even a 4-3-3, but a distinct 4-3-1-2.
The three-man midfield with three defensive-minded midfielders has become the Americans' staple under Klinsmann. He did it in Mexico with Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu and it wasn't much difference with Jones, Edu and Michael Bradley against Guatemala and Antigua and Barbuda. In fact, only once since February has the U.S. played differently in the middle.
Knowing what the U.S. was going to do, Jamaica out-manned them in the midfield, four to three, and used their pace to close down the obvious passing lanes for the American midfielders. It was a simple numbers game and the U.S. lost it.
Worst of all, the U.S. wasn't just playing a man down in the center of the park, but they were doing it in small spaces. Their inability to get width again meant that the Jamaicans didn't even need to respect the wings and could use their pace to close down the U.S. midfielders even quicker than one would expect from a team with a man advantage. Only Beckerman was given space and that was by design, as the Jamaicans dared him to carry the ball instead of simply distribute it.
What was supposed to be an advantage for the U.S. turned into an area where they were dominated. And while Jamaica is a decent team and not the easy win that some may have thought they would be, their midfield was easily their weak spot. The Americans managed to lose the midfield battle, where they are supposed to be strongest and where Jamaica was supposed to be weakest and it was simple tactics.
Yet despite getting beaten in a simple numbers game and losing the tactical battle, it took more than 70 minutes for Klinsmann to make a change. Finally, Klinsmann turned to Brek Shea to give the team some width on the left and Herculez Gomez was turned from a forward to a winger, providing width on the right. By then, it was too little too late.
Some might chalk up the midfield problems to the absence of Bradley, who certainly would have helped things. The quicker pace that he plays with and passing would have given the U.S. a fighting chance despite being out-manned, but this isn't a team, philosophy or idea that is dependent on Bradley. Klinsmann has the U.S. playing this way last year when he chose to bring Bradley off the bench.
Might Landon Donovan have given the U.S. width? It's possible, but he didn't against Mexico because he wasn't played wide and he cut in as much versus Guatemala as he did stalk the sideline.
Some might argue that the match came down to free kicks, as Klinsmann did after the match, but Jamaica didn't just win the free kick battle. They won the midfield battle and the win in the center is why Beckerman had to commit the foul that led to the first goal and why a weary-legged Edu had to take down Luton Shelton for the second free kick.
On Friday, the Americans took their style, their philosophy and their set up to Jamaica and the Reggae Boyz were ready for it. They knew how to exploit the Americans' weaknesses in the middle and how to make their lack of width a problem.
The problems that the United States had in Kingston was not the result of them stepping out and trying something new. It wasn't the 2009 trip to Saprissa all over again. Then, the U.S. returned home, ditched their failed Costa Rica experiment and went back to what they did best. This time around, the U.S. were beaten at what they do best, or at least what they think they do best, and that presents a whole new set of problems.
Now comes the scary part for the U.S. They have to ask themselves if a year of building the three defensive midfielder, width-challenged system been for naught or this was a one off. And if they get it wrong, they could be facing another loss that puts them on the brink of elimination from the 2014 World Cup.