KINGSTON, Jamaica -- For the U.S. national team, the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying is a lot like the old five-game NBA playoff series: It shouldn't be a huge challenge, but the shortened nature of the six-game round means one or two crazy bounces can spring a trap and put you on the verge of disaster.
Remember Nov. 15, 2000? On a muggy day in the Caribbean, the U.S. was 25 minutes from World Cup elimination in a semifinal round qualifier in, of all places, Barbados.
The U.S. went on to win that match, qualify for World Cup 2002 and advance all the way to the quarterfinals, but the point stands: There's little margin for error in this semifinal round, and the U.S. would be well-served to bag at least a win and a tie in home-and-home qualifiers against Jamaica on Friday here (8 p.m. ET, beIN Sport 1) and in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/3, Univision). In a group from which the top two finishers will advance to next year's final-round Hexagonal, the U.S. is tied with Jamaica on four points, ahead of Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda (one point each).
But if Guatemala sweeps Antigua this week, the U.S. would certainly prefer to avoid going into next month's final two group games either level with or behind both the Jamaicans and Guatemalans. Getting at least four points from these two games would guarantee that the U.S. heads into next month alone in first place.
Six points (two wins) would be even better, of course, and it would fit the theme of the year for the U.S., which won for the first time ever at Italy and at Mexico. The Americans have never been victorious in a World Cup qualifier in Jamaica, tying all four times going back to 1988 at "The Office," a stadium known for reggae music and having less grass on the scrubby field than in the stands, where ganja smoke provides a potent backdrop.
Make no mistake, though: This is a depleted U.S. team. Cornerstones Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan are both out injured -- this will be the first time neither player has started a competitive (non-friendly) U.S. game since the 2009 Gold Cup -- and U.S. star Clint Dempsey hasn't played in a professional game anywhere in almost three months, the result of sitting out for Fulham before last week's move to Tottenham Hotspur.
While U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said he won't hesitate to use Dempsey, who's with the team, my sense is he'll likely be an impact sub in this game with an eye toward putting him in the starting lineup Tuesday. One big key Friday will be speed: Jamaica won't have Usain Bolt (who could reportedly join Manchester United for a charity match down the road), but there are plenty of speedsters who will be familiar to MLS fans.
How will the U.S. handle that pace? And who will Klinsmann pick if he can't start his three top field players (Dempsey, Bradley and Donovan)? Here are my best guesses for the starting lineups:
USA: Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Fabian Johnson; Kyle Beckerman; Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu; Hérculez Gómez, Jozy Altidore.
Jamaica: Dwayne Miller; Lovel Palmer, Shavar Thomas, Adrian Mariappa, Nyron Nosworthy; Dane Richards, JeVaughn Watson, Jason Morrison, Ryan Johnson; Omar Cummings, Luton Shelton.
You'll know the U.S. is going for more creativity if Klinsmann inserts Dempsey or José Torres in place of one of these midfielders, but I think the U.S. coach will try to keep it tight at the start. Torres didn't help his stock with an ineffective 45 minutes in Mexico last month, and while Williams has also done little offensively in a U.S. uniform, Klinsmann appears to like using him. (The German-American Williams will also be cap-tied to the U.S. if he takes the field here.)
Defensively, the biggest rising talent for the U.S. is Cameron, who was excellent in Mexico and has instantly entered Stoke City's starting lineup after moving to England this summer. Cameron will almost certainly be on the field somewhere, either in central defense (next to captain Bocanegra) or perhaps as a pure defensive midfielder in place of Beckerman. (In that case, Clarence Goodson or Michael Parkhurst would be options on the back line.) Up front, Gómez appears to have won a spot for now, and I suspect Altidore has done enough in his promising start at AZ Alkmaar to get the nod alongside him. (Terrence Boyd has also kicked off the season well at Rapid Vienna and would be another option.)
As for Jamaica, the Reggae Boyz' fast attacking threats include MLSers Richards, Johnson, Cummings and Darren Mattocks, who has a chance to start but at the very least could provide a spark off the bench. (He's also a monster in the air.) Shelton, currently plying his trade in Turkey, is Jamaica's all-time leading scorer. The one regular from Jamaica's first two qualifiers who's missing is injured midfielder Demar Phillips of Norway's Aalesund, who scored in a big home win over Guatemala in June. Keep in mind, there's plenty of pressure as well here on Jamaica, which could only manage a 0-0 tie at Antigua in its last qualifier.
For U.S. fans, the other big story will be the television broadcast. For the first time since it bought the rights for all the U.S. road World Cup qualifiers (aside from at Mexico), Al Jazeera-owned beIN Sport 1 will show a U.S. game. That means hearing the excellent Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson on the call, but only if you're able to watch the match. Only DirecTV (in HD) and DISH (in SD) will carry the game live in the U.S.; Comcast subscribers can get the game on delay on Spanish-language beIN Sport 2, but the platform won't have English-language beIN Sport 1 running yet by game time. In other words, if you don't have DirecTV or DISH, you'll need to go to a sports bar or a friend's place to see the game live.
• European World Cup qualifying finally gets started this week, but already 79 nations comprising 56 percent of the world's population have been eliminated from World Cup 2014. The list of countries out of the running includes some of the most populous nations (China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh) and recent World Cup participants (Saudi Arabia, Trinidad & Tobago, North Korea, China again). As of today, 128 nations are competing for 31 spots in World Cup 2014. (Brazil gets an automatic berth as the host.) A total of 203 countries started in qualifying last year. Only four nations chose not to participate: Mauritania, Bhutan, Guam and Brunei Darussalam.
• Kingston is the largest English-speaking city in the Americas south of Miami. Just thought that was a cool factoid.
• Interesting few days on Twitter. I love Twitter, and I'm on it a lot, but sometimes the best of intentions and attempted safeguards need even higher standards when it comes to preventing the spread of bad information.
Example 1: On Saturday, I retweeted a post I had seen on my timeline from @AFootballReport: "Didier Drogba has been released by Shanghai Shenhua, according to the Associated Press." I don't just RT anything I see, and before I do an RT I go through a process: How big is the news? (If it's someone's death, I almost never RT, and only then if I verify it on my own or see a real report by AP or The New York Times.) How credible is the source? (If it's someone I know who has a great track record of accuracy, that makes it more likely that I will RT.) And is there a link or supporting material?
@AFootballReport is a blog started by Eric Beard, a guy I know who has a very good track record of accuracy. Reports I had seen in previous days suggested it was a real possibility Shanghai Shenua would release Drogba due to financial problems at the club. And the tweet cited The Associated Press, which has a sterling reputation for accuracy. But I made a mistake in retweeting the post without checking to see if there was an actual link to an Associated Press story. It turned out there was not. When I contacted Beard about @AFootballReport's tweet, he said it wasn't from him but from another person working for the site who posted it.
Within minutes I had communicated with Drogba's publicity rep, Caroline McAteer (@Caroline_Mc1), who tweeted: "He's not been released. He's on international duty this week. Joins up with Ivory Coast on Monday." The good news was that I was able to correct the mistake quickly and report new information with the help of Twitter. The bad news, of course, was that I had RT'd false information to more than 200,000 followers. Who willfully made up the AP report in the first place? Good question. But it would be interesting to find out.
Example 2: On Wednesday morning, U.S. star Clint Dempsey retweeted a feature story about him in the Miami Herald. Seeing Dempsey's RT, I read the story, which included this sentence: "Dempsey, who scored 23 goals in 46 matches with Fulham, is also believed to now be the highest-paid U.S. player ever with a three-year contract worth $22.2 million." On my Twitter, I posted a link to the story with the tweet: "Miami Herald: Clint Dempsey's new Spurs salary is $22.2 million over 3 years." I know the reporter, Michelle Kaufman (@kaufsports), who has a good reputation for accuracy and spoke directly to Dempsey. Nor did Dempsey himself correct the figure in his original RT of the story.
Later, Dempsey RT'd my tweet citing the Herald's figures with his own response: "Not accurate." I put Dempsey's response on my page, and Kaufman posted on her Twitter to Dempsey and me: "Sorry for inaccurate salary figure. Came from Yahoo and other publications. That's why I wrote 'believed to be.'"
So, yes, in a very "meta" moment, I learned about a story from Dempsey, posted information from that story on my own page and was then corrected by Dempsey. Twitter is indeed amazing as a communication tool connecting people from different backgrounds and different countries. Good information eventually came out, but I'm still left uncomfortable by my role in spreading bad information. All I can do for now is correct the record, apologize to everyone and say that I need to raise my Twitter standards even higher than they already are before deciding what to retweet.
As I said, interesting few days on Twitter.