By Jacob Klinger
A win for either team makes history.
In the four occasions on which the U.S. has played Jamaica in World Cup Qualifying, each game has ended in a draw. And while a point from Independence Park, better known as "The Office," gives Jurgen Klinsmann's team the upper hand going into the Sept. 11 home leg in Columbus, Ohio, the manager is rightly insisting on a pair of victories.
Meeting that end requires the U.S. manages both sides of four hotspots around Independence Park's bumpy field. Perhaps none moreso than the depths of midfield.
Jermaine Jones looks certain to fill one of the deep-lying central midfield positions and one of Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman will likely play a more stationary role beside him. Jones' knack for quick forays into the attack may be key in catching Jamaica on the counter, yet it will be his and his midfield partner's ability to clog Jamaican build-up that will truly dictate the outcome of Friday night's game.
This American team is not naive. Knowing Jamaica posesses plenty of attacking speed, the U.S. can actually neutralize the Reggae Boyz's pace by dropping off in defense. Jamaica is far from its best creating in tight spaces, so the U.S. will be somewhat content to file back in a defensive shape with crushing on-ball pressure in the defensive third. Here Jones and co. must be constant passing lane road blocks. If the defensive midfield successfully extends the American eighteen, Jamaica will run out of ideas and be forced wide.
The U.S. is fairly comfortable defending the crosses that would follow and can then play out through Cameron and Jones to kickstart its own build-up play.
On the offensive Klinsmann's squad will look to draw Jamaica out and unpredictably switch the point of attack. Much has been made of Clint Dempsey's lack of fitness ahead of this Jamaica tilt. Dempsey himself admitted that the U.S. camp was his first real training experience of the European preseason. Yet its hard to imagine Klinsmann sending out anyone but Dempsey to conduct the American offense.
Playing a nominal striker role, Dempsey will key the attack ahead of Jones. When the U.S. breaks out of its defensive shape Dempsey must correctly choose between holding for a more half-court style approach or driving for the counter. The U.S. won't abandon the counterattack, but a track meet with Jamaica is surely not in the game plan.
When the U.S. does set up in the offensive third, Dempsey will largely be tasked with involving wide players in the attack. Forfeiting the wings to Jamaica is a recipe for disaster and if Dempsey cannot find space for width then the U.S. becomes dependent on him and the striker in front of him popping up around the box and making the most of whatever uncreative scraps they can conjure up. Dempsey did clean up against Italy in February, but Jamaica is a more dangerous team on the wings. Forcing play centrally and conceding wide ground in the attack will only make the defensive task that much harder.
Therein lies the importance of the Fabian Johnson-Dane Richards matchup. Both are fast and potential gamebreakers. If Johnson gets too cavalier in the attack, a Richards-Bocanegra foot race will ensue, followed by a serious test of Tim Howard's world-class one-on-one skills. Johnson has the tools to contain Richards with a little tracking back from the American midfield. Yet this individual battle will truly be won around forty yards from the Jamaican goalmouth.
If Johnson can lurk there long enough between punctuating overlaps, Richards' ability to get forward will be limited, a crucial element of the Jamaican attack becomes shackled and the U.S. opens up the space for itself it so desperately needs to create.
The U.S. can play as water-tight as it likes, but at some point Bocanegra and Cameron will have to bail out their teammates. Mistakes happen. A lackadaisical touch on the wing from Brek Shea or a half-hit pass from Beckerman will spring a Jamaican counter and the central defenders' brains must move as fast as their feet. Of course, the central duo can concede nothing in the air, but that much is expected of them.
As the game progresses the backs should find more time on the ball. And if Cameron can find a passing rhythm, the U.S. attack will have ample opportunities to break down Jamaica's defense. Visions of Cameron picking out Dempsey at midfield with Shea, Jones and Altidore dashing around him at a tired Jamaican defense are surely appetizing to Klinsmann.
Calling the center of defense crucial does seem obvious, but the two center backs' ability to pick out teammates after cutting out Jamaican passes is sure to be the difference between the U.S. trying to grind out a result and dominating proceedings in pursuit of history.
HAVE YOUR SAY ... How are you watching the game? Who do you want to see? Does Shea deserve the start? What else will decide the game? The Facebook comments section below is all yours.
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and the Daily Orange. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at email@example.com.
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