[USA CONFIDENTIAL] On form, Jamaica probably rates an unfamiliar role as favorite for its quarterfinal against the USA at RFK Stadium on Sunday, despite not being able to win any of the 17 previous matches between the countries.
As soon as the Gold Cup groups were announced, Jamaica looked a good bet to not only advance into the knockout phases but perhaps qualify for its first final.
It has done nothing to dispel that sentiment while reeling off three straight wins in group play while scoring seven goals and conceding none. It gets a prime opportunity to confirm its class with a quarterfinal against the USA Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Univision) in Washington, D.C., where 14 years ago in a Concacaf Hexagonal qualifier it recorded a 1-1 tie on its way to the 1998 World Cup.
A midfield mainstay of the team that sent the island nation into ecstasy when it qualified for its first World Cup, Coach Theodore Whitmore says the current squad can meet his expectations by beating the Americans. “We came here to at least be in the semifinal,” he said to concacaf.com. “When we are looking at the next game we know it’s going to be tough.”
In the match U.S. attacker Landon Donovan will face keeper, namesake and Galaxy teammate Donovan Ricketts, who is one of seven MLS players on Jamaica’s roster. “They're a good team,” said Donovan. “They're certainly confident. We need to continue to improve. It's going to be a test for us.”
Jamaica qualified for the elimination phase with a game to spare by thumping Guatemala (2-0) and Grenada (4-0), and polished off group play with yet another shutout, a 1-0 dispatch of Honduras at Red Bull Arena. Pelted by debris from hostile Honduran fans, the Jamaicans stuck to their task and exhibited a discipline that has been lacking at times in the past.
“We have made a lot of progress; we have a set of guys who have been working for a year, a good bunch, disciplined and everything,” says Whitmore of a team that has also displayed an ability to keep the ball, rather than charge forward with it brazenly and sometimes recklessly at the slightest opportunity. Holding the ball under pressure and playing it smartly was a facet of Whitmore’s play as well.
“I think what we brought to this tournament is ball possession, because we tended to give away the ball a lot,” says Whitmore, who coached the team at the Gold Cup two years ago when it failed to get out of the first round. “So we can see a difference in our ball possession.
“We look at 2009. We went out at this stage and we're actually in the quarterfinals now, so I think the future is bright for the Jamaican national team.”
If the future is to brighten for the U.S. it will need to sharpen many elements of its game, starting with finishing. On a total of 36 shots in the past two games against Panama and Guadeloupe, it has scored just twice. The majority of those shots either missed the target or didn’t seriously test the goalkeeper.
It needs to raise its game tactically and physically, and also emotionally in an RFK Stadium of which sections will be awash in the Jamaican colors of green and gold. Also prominent will be the blue and white of El Salvador, which plays Panama in the second game of a doubleheader. The winners advance to play a semifinal Wednesday in Houston.
“Even though the games are being played in America, sometimes we have five percent of the crowd,” says center back Clarence Goodson, who played four games of the 2009 tournament and has started the three games in this competition. “Whether it be against Honduras or Mexico or whatever, we’re certainly outnumbered, so it certainly feels like an away match.”
The Americans last played at RFK on Oct. 14, 2009, in the final game of the Hexagonal qualifying schedule. Jonathan Bornstein scored in stoppage time to earn the U.S. a 2-2 tie that pushed it atop the final standings. That game took place less than two days after forward Charlie Davies suffered severe injuries in a car crash that knocked him off the 2010 World Cup roster.
Now playing on loan with D.C. United, Davies was excluded from the Gold Cup roster. He has visited the U.S. camp this week; not present at training sessions are Donovan and Clint Dempsey, who have been given permission by U.S. Soccer to attend their sisters’ weddings Saturday in California and Texas, respectively. They will arrive in Washington on private jets sometime in the evening. Kickoff for USA-Jamaica is 3 p.m. local time.
In 17 games against Jamaica dating back to 1988, the USA is 9-0-8, but in the past two weeks, the Reggae Boyz have certainly looked better.
“We recognize what we’re doing wrong,” says U.S. forward Jozy Altidore, scorer of a spectacular goal from distance in the 1-0 win over Guadaloupe Tuesday that featured a plethora of squandered chances. He was only 16 when the teams last met, a 1-1 tie in Cary, N.C., more than five years ago.
“We have to come out and press all over the field and play some exciting soccer. We’ve addressed it. Little by little we’re getting better and when the games are on the line, in the bigger games, we’re going to play well.”