Qualifiers in Kingston are normally tight affairs, but the meeting Friday between host Jamaica and the USA might be an exception.
Simply put, this Jamaican team is not all that solid defensively, and can be exploited by the USA despite the absence of Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley, and a Clint Dempsey short of game fitness. Four of the Jamaicans play in MLS and will have great motivation as well as experience against their some of their opponents but will be facing foes who play in foreign leagues.
The powerful frame of Jozy Altidore is tailor-made for the robust yet naive back-liners who currently play for Jamaica, and a quick start in Austria for another banger, Terence Boyd, also bodes well. Herculez Gomez is just as fast as the Jamaicans and has an impressive scoring rate in Mexico.
Of course, the Americans need to find the space and time to open supply lines to the potential scorers, and the Bradley-less choices for Jurgen Klinsmann could prompt moving Maurice Edu back into midfield despite his stalwart defensive performance three weeks ago against Mexico.
Jamiaca may not be the most astute team tactically, but its midfielders are fast and strong. They turn turnovers into chances very quickly, and avoiding those abrupt changes in possession is essential for the USA. Jermaine Jones can bang with the best of them but he doesn't always take care of his touches, and Jose Torres usually labors against rugged opposition. If the Bradley hole isn't sufficiently filled, the Americans must rely on movement and cohesion, or hit long balls.
Still, though Rodolph Austin just signed for Leeds United and Je-Vaughn Watson (Houston Dynamo) is another of the MLS contingent, the USA has an edge in midfield as well. Hot, dry conditions and a bumpy surface must be accounted for, as well as the racuous support Jamaica usually draws when it plays at home against the USA.
Pre-game speculation has focused on the latest fleet of Reggae Boyz (still the best national-team nickname around) attackers as extremely potent. No doubt Omar Cummings and Darren Maddocks are dangerous, but the former hasn't been on the field regularly for Colorado and the latter is an MLS rookie who's recently gone cold, again, during a typically streaky rookie season. Of the attacking lot, soon-to-be-in-Burnley burner Dane Richards is a man in sharp form, though his showings for Jamaica are notoriously varied. Ryan Johnson doesn't always start for his country and leaves opponents bruised and battered no matter how many minutes he plays.
By naming two dozen players,Klinsmann is trying to cover many possibilities. Decisions on the fitness of Dempsey and captain Carlos Bocanegra will ripple through the squad. The versatility of Jonathan Spector, who has played centerback and outside back for the USA, may come into play as the teams face each other twice in five days.
There are many returnees from the 2011 Gold Cup quarterfinal meeting that the USA won, 2-0, on an own goal and a late clincher from Dempsey, but the Reggae Boyz went down to 10 men in the 63rd minute and that's not likely to happen in Jamaica's national stadium. (That game also featured Eric Lichaj at left back. Whatever happened to that guy?)
The last three qualifiers between the countries in Kingston have ended 1-1 (2004), 0-0 (2001) and 0-0 (1997). This one looks like it might give the scoreboard more numbers to work with.