Reggae Boyz have the edge
Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
Forget Jamaica's winless streak against the United States. Today's CONCACAF semi-final round World Cup Qualifier (WCQ) at the National Stadium has no clear-cut favourite.
Even after Jamaica's 18 previous unsuccessful tries at the senior international football level since 1988, there is no reason the Reggae Boyz cannot smash the US jinx.
With the starting line-ups still unconfirmed, here's how the possible matchups could decide the outcome:
Tim Howard is a veteran performer in the English Premier League and has 79 caps for the US. Dwayne Miller is just establishing himself as Jamaica's first choice.
Edge: US DEFENCE
It's suspect for both teams
In the first two WCQs in June, Jamaica started four at the back - Lovel Palmer on the right, Demar Phillips left, with Adrian Mariappa and Nyron Nosworthy in the centre. Against Guatemala, a 2-1 home win, Jamaica defended well overall, but carelessly gave up a late goal from a free kick.
Antigua and Barbuda (A&B) exposed this unit in the second match, a 0-0 draw away. There were some unbelievably naive moments. Missed marking assignments left A&B attackers open throughout.
When Jamaica faced El Salvador in an August 15 friendly, coach Theodore Whitmore dusted off the five-at-the-back defence. Two stoppers - Dicoy Williams and Jermaine Taylor - accompanied sweeper in Shavar Thomas in the middle. None of that trio played the two WCQ. Palmer played on the right with Andrae Campbell replacing the injured Phillips, who is also out today, on the left flank.
Jamaica did not surrender a goal, but inconsistent marking and sluggishness shutting down attackers allowed El Salvador 18 shots. Miller was forced to make seven saves.
Whitmore admitted post-game Jamaica had not practised the formation, which listed two central midfielders and three forwards. Maybe the unavailability of Mariappa and Nosworthy, due to club duty, forced the coach's hand. Or possibly Whitmore was more worried about what he saw in A&B than he has admitted.
Either way, Campbell's showing against El Salvador means the experienced Taylor, who often plays left back for his Major League Soccer club, could be slotted on that side today, whatever the formation.
The US have problems of their own, usually deploying a 4-4-2 formation. They, too, gave up a late free kick goal in a 1-1 draw against Guatemala. A&B scored once, but posed a consistent scoring threat before losing 3-1.
Veteran Steve Churundolo is solid at right back, but the left side has been troublesome, with several players tried. Captain Carlos Bocanegra can play centrally or on the left, but he is bothered by speedy attackers and was exposed in Guatemala. Fabian Johnson could start at left back, with Jonathan Spector and Michael Parkhurst also in contention.
Geoff Cameron, Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco Fiscal are options in the centre. So too Maurice Edu, normally a defensive midfielder. It's clear the Americans are still seeking answers.
Jamaica lament the lack of a genuine playmaker. The US will miss injured influential stars Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. But they have expressive players who can pass - Kyle Beckerman and Jose Torres come to mind - and a rugged spine in Jermaine Jones. This unit is organised, but has to prove it can dominate.
Jamaica, if the Boyz choose four across the middle, are predictable as well. A key will be Rodolph Austin, especially if he gets his powerful shots on target.
If he starts, holding midfielder Jason Morrison, who normally settles Jamaica's passing game, is pivotal to establishing the team's rhythm. However, he must prepare for quick, relentless, physical pressure from the US. The rest of the Boyz can expect the same - and must return the favour.
Whoever is on the flanks for Jamaica - Dane Richards, JeVaughn Watson did in the first two WCQs - will have opportunities to unlock the US defence. Watson has poise and vision to create scoring opportunities. Richards brings blinding speed.
The three-man frontline Jamaica listed against El Salvador left the midfield unbalanced, but it was an interesting revelation. Luton Shelton scored twice. The pace of Shelton, Omar Cummings and Ryan Johnson was tough to tame. Others like Kavin Bryan and Darren Mattocks can offer the same.
Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez and Jozy Altidore, on their day, are real threats. Gomez is a crafty scorer. So too Dempsey, but he may not be match sharp. If Jamaica's forwards get the right service their speed will make life uncomfortable for a suspect US defence.
Whitmore has yet to lose a World Cup Qualifier, dating to the last WCQ campaign. Klinsmann is inexperienced in CONCACAF, but has reaped success at a higher level. Furthermore, the US drew 1-1 in Guatemala in June and beat Mexico 1-0 in a friendly at Estadio Azteca on August 15.
Both coaches are still finding their way. But Whitmore, known to pull surprises, is at home. That can be the deciding factor in close games.
The US will be well prepared, however, especially physically. Expect the Americans to stay tactically disciplined and determined throughout. To win, Jamaica must match that.
Jamaica hold the edge at 'The Office', where the crowd is usually loud, the atmosphere intense, temperature hot and players pumped up. Most of the US squad never played in Kingston before, with Bocanegra the only one from the last time the countries clashed in a WCQ in 2004.
The stadium surface is an advantage for Jamaica, especially after the concerns about its readiness.
The Americans may well think caution - and a draw - today, especially with the return leg scheduled for four days later in the US. For Jamaica, the stars couldn't be better aligned for them to press for a historic win, especially in celebration of the nation's 50th Independence.