Friday, June 17, 2011

Scouting Report: Jamaica

By Clemente Lisi -- It often looks as if the opening round of the Gold Cup is a formality aimed at setting up a USA-Mexico final. More often than not, those are the two countries contending for the trophy. This year, Jamaica has something to say about that.

After going 3-0 in the first round and outscoring opponents 7-0, Jamaica is making a bid to reach the Gold Cup final for the first time in history. In order to make at least the semifinal, they will have to defeat the United States on Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium (3pm ET – Fox Soccer) in a hotly-anticipated quarterfinal clash.

“We are here to get to at least the semifinals. We didn't come here expecting to play any easy games, so every game from this point forward is like a final,” Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore said.

For US coach Bob Bradley, the stakes are much higher. Anything short of reaching the championship game will be seen as a huge disappointment.

“Our goal has always been to get to the final,” he said. “We understand from experience what it means in group play. You have to deal with each game and find a way to advance. We were pretty hard on ourselves because we weren’t satisfied with our performance against Panama. Nonetheless, I think there are things there that bring the group together, and now we get ready for the knockout phase and approach it one game at a time.”

The Jamaican defense has yet to yield a goal and the US offense will need to come out guns blazing to change that. Players like Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley will be key in the midfield. Bradley will need to have another big game by maintaining possession and making sure the Jamaican attack never gets a chance to create anything offensively. Subs Sacha Kljestan and Maurice Edu were efficient in the USA’s 1-0 win over Guadeloupe and their energy made sure the Americans stayed fresh down the stretch.

The Reggae Boyz have used their speed, poise, and midfield play to dominate opponents, while showing defensive discipline not usually associated with most Caribbean teams. Even the fabled Jamaica team that qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France was not immune at giving up easy goals.

“We have made a lot of progress,” Whitmore said. “We have a group of players that we have been working with for some time. It is a good group of players. I think what we bring to this tournament is increased ball possession because in the past we tended to give away the ball a lot.”

For Jamaica, the United States represents its biggest challenge yet at this Gold Cup. While Major League Soccer gets a lot of praise for helping develop future American talent, the League has also become a place where an increasingly large number of Jamaicans ply their trade. Jamaica, ranked 55th by FIFA in its May poll, has nine players on its roster that currently play in MLS. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts (Los Angeles Galaxy), striker Ryan Johnson (San Jose Earthquakes) and winger Dane Richards (New York Red Bulls) are just three of the standouts familiar to MLS fans.

“We have been improving with every game,” Richards said. “We have to score first and early, not give up any goals, and I think that can be the formula for success for us.”

Jamaica has been powerful offensively despite losing Omar Cummings, who had been originally selected to the roster but withdrew last week following a nagging ankle injury. Cummings will be reunited with his Colorado Rapids teammates this weekend.

Stoke City standout Demar Philips, who scored in Jamaica’s first two games and leads the team with three goals, and Johnson have been two of the deadliest strikers at the Gold Cup. The US backline will need to shut them down. Otherwise, it will be a long afternoon for goalkeeper Tim Howard.

“We’re showing CONCACAF and the world that we have the players and we have a lot of talent in Jamaica,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working on things in practice, passing quickly, finishing. It’s showing on the field. I’m just happy everything is coming together and we’re just trying to take this as far as possible.”

As for the United States, Steve Cherundolo and Eric Lichaj were effective on the flanks and provided plenty of balls in the box against Guadeloupe in their final Group C game. Carlos Bocanegra at centerback gave stability to the backline, while Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan were the attacking catalyst in the midfield.

Often, Bradley's 4-4-2, with Jozy Altidore and Chris Wondolowski up top, turned into a 4-2-4 with Donovan and Dempsey aiding the attack with passes and long-range shots. Although the Americans could only score one goal against Guadeloupe, they pressured their opponents and stretched its defense with as many as five US players in the box at any given time. Applying that much offensive pressure Sunday could be what makes the Jamaican defense finally buckle.

The USA has scored just nine goals in 11 games since last summer’s World Cup. The National Team’s inability to score on a regular basis was on full display in the pre-Gold Cup friendly against Spain (a 4-0 loss) and last week versus Panama (a 2-1 loss). Against Canada (a 2-0 win) and Guadeloupe (a 1-0 win), the Americans did substantially better, but it was against relatively weak opponents.

“Our teams have always come back really well even when we haven’t been at our best,” said Bradley.

For all involved in the US camp, the stakes are clear.

“Now if you don’t win you go home,” Altidore said. “Those chances come back to haunt you. Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at putting our chances away but now more than ever we have to really stake our claim and score some of these goals.”

The Americans have yet to play at their best at this tournament, something that should be of concern for Jamaica. If the recent past is any guide, never count the USA out.
National Teamers Available In England

Jonathan Spector, Eddie Johnson, and Marcus Hahnemann are available as free transfers after parting ways with their clubs. Spector, who found success last season in a switch from defense to midfield, leaves West Ham United. West Ham was relegated at the end of the season. Spector joined the club for the 2006-07 season, ultimately making 101 Premier League appearances.

Johnson parts ways with Fulham after spending the second half of the season on loan with Preston North End. Johnson had 13 appearances with PNE, who were eventually relegated from the Championship.

Hahnemann spent most of the 2010-11 season as the backup goalkeeper at Wolverhampton. Over two seasons in the Premier League with the club, he had 39 appearances.

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