By Ridge Mahoney
Just about anyone would agree that playing three World Cup qualifiers in eight days is insane, but that's what Jamaica and Mexico will do starting tonight.
Mexico’s participation on the Confederations Cup that kicks off in 11 days required a juggling of the Hexagonal schedule. Mexico and Jamaica opened the final phase of qualifying Feb. 6 with a 0-0 tie in the Azteca, and would normally meet again on the sixth Hexagonal date, June 18. Yet by then Mexico will have already played its Confederations Cup opener against Italy in Rio de Janeiro during an intense run of games that will also include the Gold Cup starting July 8.
Instead, Jamaica and Mexico agreed to play in Kingston tonight, and both countries will also fulfill the Hexagonal dates on Friday and June 11 (next Tuesday). In addition to increasing the physical and mental burdens on both teams, the rescheduling also resulted in an opportunity for Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff to scout the Jamaica-Mexico game in person.
U.S. Soccer arranged the team’s charter flight so it would arrive shortly after noon on Tuesday, which is one of the earliest arrivals for a road game in its recent history. Acclimation to the expected high temperatures in Kingston shouldn’t be a problem; temperatures during the team’s stay in Washington, D.C. were in the 90s.
One facet of the team’s early arrival will be a chance for the coaches to assess playing conditions during tonight’s game, which starts at the same time (9:30 p.m. ET; TV Telemundo) as the U.S. game on Friday. A bumpy surface and windy conditions have often plagued U.S. teams at this venue, and seeing how two rival teams, including the host, cope with them could as relevant as the insights the coaches may pick up watching future opponents in person.
The Americans will play back-to-back home games in this Hexagonal, but those are a week apart: against Panama Tuesday and Honduras a week later. Regardless of their result on Friday, their situation is not as dire as that faced by Jamaica, which is last in the Hexagonal with just two points and after the double-dip of home games against the two Concacaf heavyweights must travel to Tegucigalpa for its June 11 game. A poor run of results in the next three games will drop Jamaica deeper into the cellar.
With ties in each of its three Hexagonal matches and winless this year in six games overall, Mexico is perhaps not as desperate as Jamaica, but in a critical situation nonetheless. It plays at group leader Panama Friday, then hosts Costa Rica next Tuesday prior to departing for Brazil. Coach Chepo de la Torre and his players are chafing under criticisms of the team's play so far in the Hexagonal, which includes a blown 2-0 lead in Honduras as well as the goalless home games with Jamaica and the U.S.
A hard-fought, physical, draining game tonight could help the Americans Friday when they play a Jamaican team on just two days’ rest. It’s incredible to think that as the visitor, the U.S. arrived in Jamaica hours before the host team kicked off against the region’s powerhouse. With several days to acclimate and the advantage of facing a tired, beat-up foe, the Americans could be in a great position to snatch a win in Kingston, which it has never accomplished and would also avenge a 2-1 loss at same venue last year in the semifinal phase.
Whatever the result of tonight’s game, though, its intensity compared to that of the U.S. 4-3 waltz with Germany Sunday will be glaring. Even in a setting typical of a friendly, several Americans came up short at critical moments, and it’s not likely they will be able to build up a three-goal lead the bulk of which can be frittered away. The acres of space and eons of time conceded by Germany won’t be on offer in Kingston.
Jamaica played in its only World Cup 15 years ago, and by consensus this squad offers the nation’s best opportunity to return. How it responds to that pressure tonight, and how capably the Americans follow suit on Friday, will significantly alter the Hexagonal standings in which the top and bottom teams are separated by only three points.
The juggled schedule offers the U.S. a unique opportunity it can’t afford to squander. Realistically as well as mathematically, there are nine points up for grabs in the next three game.