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World Cup qualifying, USA v. Jamaica: What to Watch For

The Reggae Girlz have played their way into the semifinal. How will they match up against the #1 ranked United States?

Soccer: 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship-Cuba at Jamaica Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

CONCACAF Women’s World Cup qualifying group stage is complete, and the semifinal matchups are set. At the top, everything went according to expectations, with the United States and Canada taking relatively easy paths to 9 points. But below the big names, things were a bit more unsettled. In the Cary group, Panama rode an outstanding performance from their young goalkeeper Yenith Bailey to beat Mexico to second place. Meanwhile, down in Edinburg, Jamaica’s impressive team performance, combined with a little bit of luck, was enough to see them past Costa Rica.

That sets up a semifinal clash between the United States and Jamaica. And while the US will be heavy favorites, they certainly shouldn’t get complacent. This Jamaica team has already impressed, and is improving with every game. Plus, they have absolutely nothing to lose. Even if they get blown out by the US, they’ll still have two more chances to qualify. So they’re likely to treat this like playing with house money.

Jamaica players to watch

If Jamaica has any hope of pulling off a historic upset, the key will be their young talismanic striker Khadija (Bunny) Shaw, a prolific goal-scorer who is in the midst of a stellar college season for the University of Tennessee and providing the game-winning goal to secure Jamaica’s win over Costa Rica in the group stage. This will be the first chance for many to see Shaw play, and it’s worth paying close attention. She’s going to be a big name in world soccer for many years to come.

In terms of style, she embodies the modern forward: quick, powerful, physically dominant, but with plenty of of skill to complement the athleticism. The combination makes for a devastating package, and it will be a real task for the US center backs to keep her in check.

However, as became clear in Jamaica’s group stage games, the easiest way to contain Shaw is simple: choke off her supply. Deny her access to the ball, and there’s very little they can do to pose a threat. That means that Jamaica’s chances will depend on the midfield’s ability to connect enough passes to get the ball into dangerous spaces. And here, the odds get far narrower for them. Against both Canada and Costa Rica, Jamaica struggled with their passing efficiency—giving the ball away far too often, and under far less pressure than they’re likely to face from the swarming US defense. Against Canada, they relied heavily on long balls to try to build their attack—a strategy that coach Hue Menzies said was designed to capitalize on Shaw being good in the air, and her ability to get behind defenses. But it didn’t work. Time after time, balls went up and came down on Canadian heads. With relatively weak legs at the back, Jamaica often struggled to lift the ball far enough to even pick out Shaw, much less give her a chance to get behind the defense.

Given the US high press, Jamaica may well find themselves pinned back and forced into a similar strategy. If so, it could be a long day for them. But they do have some other options, and may try to use them. First is Chinyelu Asher, who played an important holding role in the group stages, stopping attacks and then building play from the reset. They’ll also need peak performances from Deneisha Blackwood and Trudi Carter attacking wide, using their speed to open up the defense. Neither Blackwood nor Carter are blessed with anything like the skill of a Mallory Pugh or Megan Rapinoe, but they do their best to make up for it with workrate. If they can use their pace to exploit the wings, Jamaica will have a far better chance to get Shaw on the ball close enough to goal to make a difference. If not, it will probably be a long night for them.

Probably the most notable feature of Jamaica’s performance in the group stage was the precision and strength of their defensive line, which conceded just two goals—both to Canada. Based on the evidence of those matches, Jamaica is unlikely to ‘park the bus.’ While they did generally play deep against Canada, the center backs ranged out regularly, looking to pressure the ball high and support the midfield’s attempt to disrupt play. In this, they got top-notch performances from Konya Plummer and Allyson Swaby, who were strong in the air and resolute on the ground. But ultimately their defensive work was a group effort, with everyone putting in full effort and moving together.

Possible US tactics

However, while the Jamaican defense was impressively organized, they did exhibit a few significant holes. First, when the center backs stepped up to pressure the ball, almost without exception this left a gap behind, with no one else moving to fill the space. For US players like Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle, this creates a perfect opportunity. Wriggle out of pressure and there will be an open passing channel through which a ball can be put right at the feet of the strikers. Second, the Jamaican players seemed to struggle a bit with heavy legs. While Menzies was able to rotate a bit in the third match, he’s still working with players who took on three matches in less than a week, who will now be forced to play what is probably the most exhausting team in global soccer.

All of which adds up to what most everyone probably knew coming in: the Reggae Girlz have had a great tournament and a great chance to qualify for the World Cup. But it’s very unlikely to come at the expense of the United States. This isn’t surprising given the enormous disparity in rankings, history, funding, and support between the two programs. The Jamaica team, for example, didn’t have a chance to train together before arriving in Texas for the tournament—since quite a few of their players are currently in college in the US and couldn’t afford to leave their studies for that extra time. Some of the difficulties faced by this Jamaica team were well documented by Jamaican fullback Lauren Silver in a recent episode of Burn It All Down.

However, while these inequities have to be discussed, it’s also important to not let them be the only story. Jamaica may be significant underdogs, but this tournament has already been a huge success for them, and they certainly will not enter this game accepting the inevitability of defeat. And it’s important to never underestimate the power of a group ready to put everything on the line. And according to Menzies, that’s precisely what his squad is ready to do. In his words, “it’s not just about football. It’s more than that. We want to change the mindset, the culture, our country.” And with a team ready to put everything on the line, not just for themselves but for “the people of Jamaica,” he thinks they’ve got a chance.