The tables are turned as the United States heads into its first knockout match of the 2011 Gold Cup.
Their opponent, Jamaica arrives in DC with an industrious upstart moniker similar to the one affixed to the Yanks at World Cup 2010.
Jamaica has buzzed through its CONCACAF tourney competition thus far and, under the guidance of manager and former player Theo “Tappa” Whitmore, shed some of its stereotypical image as great athletes with little more. The Jamaican team is retooled with a stronger–though not faultless–backline, a resolve to maintain poise and possession that comes directly from Whitmore and, devoid of some of it’s biggest global starts, a stronger team ethos on the field than typically accompanies the Reggae Boyz.
Meanwhile, the United States rolls, nay, totters into Sunday with a somewhat “English” hue shall we say.
A group stage that was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for the Yanks instead exposed flaws in the main production. A sloppy win against Canada preceded a listless loss to Panama which preceded a “just-enough” effort against “powerhouse” Guadeloupe to see the Yanks pull themselves into the knockouts with all the grace of a 2nd-grader attempting his first pull-up.
Beyond the clunky display on the field, a late week announcement that the the Yanks two main offensive stars, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, would be foregoing practice to participate in their respective sibling’s wedding put the air of lack of focus and dedication around the group–warranted or not–at a time when it looks like the US could use all the stick-together that they can muster.
The US should be sweating Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz when they head into RFK on Sunday as the outlook from this vantage point has upset plastered all over it.
Let’s get to our customer TSG preview. As usual, it goes:
About the opponent: Jamaica
TSG What Are We Looking For
11 At The Whistle
About the opponent: Jamaica
Jamaica has been bullying teams like Buffalo Soldiers at Gold Cup 2011.
Seven goals, none conceded, and a quite a bit of conviction behind their style of play. Long known for having speed, uh, speed and athleticism abundance with little discipline, the Reggae Boyz have put it together this summer showing a build-up and possession game that has never been identified with their style of play, until now.
The Boyz opened the tourney by hanging a four spot on overmatched Grenada, followed up it up with a 2-0 victory over Guatemala and concluded the group stage with a convincing 1-0 war of attrition and substitution over Honduras.
The Reggae Boyz have deployed predominantly in a 3-4-3 at the Gold Cup, but against Honduras shifted to a 4-4-2 resting many of their key starters.
The difference in their Honduran schematic was the positioning of MLS striker-forward Ryan Johnson who shifted into a split forward deployment with Dane Richards. In the center, however, is Johnson’s key position this tourney. He has assumed the “big striker role” of injured Ricardo Fuller ; he’s in form and delivering the goods in Gold Cup 2011 with two goals and solid play.
Bookending Johnson up top, Jamaica–devoid of Omar Cummings as well–will use the zippy New York Red Bull man Dane Richards on one corner and Norwegian Tippeligaen vet Luton Shelton on the other. Shelton will drop to the bench if Jamaica goes with only two up top.
In the midfield, Jamaica projects to use three more Norwegian leaguers across the board. Demar Phillips, a one time Stoke City player and perhaps a bigger speed merchant than even Shelton or Richards slots in at left mid. Phillips supports Shelton well and it capable of bending in a beautiful cross or two with his left foot.
The more defensive-minded Rodolfo Austin goes center right.
The fulcrum in the middle is steady Jason Morrison who trialed at Leeds, Lichaj’s loan club.
While prior to this tournament, Jamaica was in more of a 4-3-3, they now deploy in more of 3-4-3 as up-and-coming 23-year-old Eric Vernan has been pushed into more of a midfield role–a “Timmy Chandler role” if you will. Thus the midfield becomes Vernan, Austin, Morrison and Phillips.
The three anchored at the back for Jamaica are Houston Dynamo back-up Jermaine Taylor who plays the left back role. Adrian Reid fills in for Toronto FC’s Dicoy Williams who is down with a knock at right center and Sporting KC’s Shavar Thomas is the center pin in the middle.
In defense is where Jamaica is improved through team personnel and better organization. It’s back four can be prone to poor decision-making and if Jamaica starts launching balls aimlessly up the pitch you’ll know the States are frustrating them.
Jamaica rolls out L.A. Galaxy goalie–and TSG’s pick for MLS Most Overrated–Donovan Ricketts in the back. In our opinion, test Ricketts often enough and he’s prone to at least one mistake a game. Oh he’ll make amazing saves…until you realize that he was just slow to react.
Expect Jamaica to make this a classic 3-4-3 vs. 4-4-2 struggle with the flank battle playing out between the Yanks rear guard–likely Steve Cherundolo and Eric Lichaj–and how far they can advance versus whether Shelton and Richards can pin both back. As oppose to hucking it to the wings and playing “chase ball,” the Boyz will attempt to maintain possession through Morrison and Austin and instead “spring” their flanks–Phillips and Vernan–with a shorter pass, increasing it’s likelihood of success who in turn feed to Richards and Shelton.
There is a chance that Jamaica remains in a 4-4-2 however that would play more to the States strength than Jamaica’s (fast wingers).
TSG: What We’re Looking At
• Can the United States dictate the tempo?
Seen this bullet anywhere before? Tempo will be that much more important in this game as the United States doesn’t want to get in perpetual foot race with an opponent who is faster than them–and one who has improved itself in managing the game.
• Will Landon and Clint be jet propelled or jet lagged?
Got no problem with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey going to weddings. Both players have diligently committed time to the US national team and Dempsey spent his off time last year in South Africa. Landon did too in a way after his winter break was spent with Everton in the EPL.
In all likelihood, Dempsey and Donovan–with two days of rest and celebration on their minds–come out reinvigorated.
The question that remains here? Bob Bradley had five roster spots to “play” with–that is 18 out of 23 players make the game day roster. Nick Rimando, Jonathan Spector, and Jonathan Bornstein compromise the end of bench defensive options. Up top the Yanks went with two “let’s see how they do in camp” guys in Robbie Rogers and Freddy Adu–neither who have made a Gold Cup game day roster.
If Dempsey or Donovan were perhaps delayed in some emergency, precisely who would step in for them? Sacha Kljestan, who is arguably better in the center?
It continues to be mind boggling that Ale Bedoya didn’t make the original roster and has been relied on for a spark in two games–a straight attack minded forward.
It makes it more mind boggling considering the known absence of Donovan and Dempsey who would have missed this game if it were Saturday. (Incorrect and edit here: Neither would have missed the match; point still remains in our opinion.)
• Unleaded premium for Michael Bradley.
The US should be in better hands with a back left pairing of Eric Lichaj and Carlos Bocanegra, but depending on how well the Yanks manage the game tempo, this might be Michael Bradley’s busiest game.
Against Panama, Bradley got caught in flux between protecting the left rear guard and being active in the attack. While the Yanks should move more cohesively as a unit and play a higher line–reducing the pitch dimensions that Bradley needs to cover–Bradley will still likely be counted on to be aggressive in the attack all the while respecting the speed that Jamaica possesses on the attack and on the counter.
• Run, Jozy, Run….and everyone else too.
It’s as simple as perpetual motion and runs from Altidore. It’s never been done for a full match, can it be accomplished Sunday?
Similarly the Yanks cannot stagnate off-the-ball. Less so because of the specific competition, more so, because, well, it just doesn’t work.
• Key match-up: Eric Lichaj vs. Dane Richards.
Lichaj has held his own, thus far this summer. Whereas Lichaj typically likes to engage his attacker and ride him off his position, he’ll have to be a little bit more careful with Dane Richards–some amalgamation of a poor man’s Theo Walcott-Aaron Lennon–who can scoot right by him if he misses a hip.
11 At The Whistle
The skinny: Expect most, if not all the starters the States led with against Guadeloupe. Also expect Bradley’s crew to play a high line–think of their positioning in last year’s Send Off Series game against Turkey–looking to box in Jamaica and render their speed irrelevant. The States will need to be cautious of a well played over-the-top ball, but the gambit, should it be employed by Bradley, should also be worth the risk.
G: Tim Howard
The skinny: Howard had rough start to last game. Shows what happens when you give the man no rest Bob Bradley.
DEF: Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra, Eric Lichaj
The skinny: Same as Guadeloupe and rightfully so. With the big frame of Ryan Johnson in the middle, it makes sense to keep the Captain Carlos Bocanegra in his path instead of Tim Ream.
MID: Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Landon Donovan
The skinny: Our guess is–with Michael Bradley pushing up and sealing in on the right and Jermaine Jones slightly aft of him–that Clint Dempsey once again deploys on the right and the Yanks try to push back and challenge Jamaica’s speedsters on that flank.
Landon Donovan will be used to help out Lichaj with Richard and take advantage of the gap when Austin doesn’t support well enough.
FW: Chris Wondolowski, Jozy Altidore
The skinny: The US had a lot more space with Wondolowski moving off the more centrally (and rooted too often) Jozy Altidore. Altidore needs to pick it up again.
Don’t see any this time around. Maybe Maurice Edu for Jones? Nope, don’t see that either.