KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Clint Dempsey didn't mince words after the United States' 2-1 loss to Jamaica here in Friday's World Cup qualifier, the first time the Reggae Boyz had ever defeated the U.S. in 19 games going back to 1988. Mathematically, the U.S. won't be eliminated from World Cup 2014 if it doesn't win Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio, when the Americans get another crack at Jamaica.
But Dempsey didn't care. "This next game is a must-win," he said after the home side had sent its fans into party mode, storming the field to celebrate as the reggae blasted and the National Stadium erupted in joy. "We need the points," Dempsey continued. "We've got to put ourselves in a position that we advance out of the group. You start giving points away, you find yourself sinking down, and then you find yourself not qualifying for the next round."
With three games left in the semifinal round, the U.S. is tied for second with Guatemala on four points, behind Jamaica (seven points) and ahead of Antigua and Barbuda (one). Only two teams will advance to the final round next year, and while the U.S. has a favorable schedule -- home games against Jamaica and Guatemala, a road match at Antigua -- you don't want to put yourself in a situation where one bad bounce or refereeing call can put you out of World Cup 2014.
Things couldn't have gotten off to a better start for the U.S., as Dempsey scored just 35 seconds into the game, the earliest World Cup qualifying goal in U.S. history. But the ease with which the U.S. opened the scoring wasn't something the team could repeat on cue, like turning on a faucet. In fact, there was a paucity of creativity in the U.S. midfield, which was unable to manage much in the way of possession or width in the attack.
That's not necessarily surprising, considering coach Jurgen Klinsmann deployed three defensive midfielders in Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman as part of a diamond tipped by Dempsey.
"I thought there were moments in the game when we were controlling the tempo, but if I'm being completely honest it was too sloppy," said forward Hérculez Gómez, who was active but lacked service. "We weren't combining or connecting passes. The conditions weren't in anybody's favor. I think there was better grass in the stands than there was on the pitch. But it is what it is. You saw how difficult it was with the sloppiness from both teams in the first half.
"In the second half, it dried up a little bit, the ball wasn't as slick and we started occupying more spaces out wide. But we gave away too many fouls outside our own box."
Both of Jamaica's goals came on free kicks: a Rodolph Austin daisy-cutter midway through the first half, which took a slight deflection off Beckerman in the wall, and a Luton Shelton bender from distance in the 63rd minute. U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard wasn't particularly happy that Mexican referee Marco Rodríguez pushed the wall backward before the kick.
"We all felt like the wall was a lot more than 10 yards back, which of course helps the guy get the ball up and down, and he did that," Howard said. "I think nine times out of 10 the ball goes wide or he puts it over, but that's the risk you take when you give away free kicks in dangerous positions. We need to do a better job of concentrating. Giving away six or seven free kicks in bad areas is not nearly good enough."
Jamaica's team speed often caused the U.S. to make lunging fouls not far outside the penalty area, and it was just those types of fouls by Beckerman and Edu that set up the decisive free kicks.
"The key to that game was that we made things far too complicated in the first half," said Klinsmann. "We allowed them to come back into the game. Instead of keeping the ball, moving it around simple and creating more opportunities, we gave them the opportunity to get free kicks ... Those errors you can't make. So that's the lesson. But I think the team has the opportunity on Tuesday night to fix it."
Klinsmann has had better games, too. First-ever victories at Italy and at Mexico this year have been triumphant moments for a U.S. program that looks to them as signposts of progress, but the fact is those were friendlies. In three World Cup qualifiers, the games that really matter, the U.S. has been less impressive. Klinsmann was asked afterward if the U.S. was overconfident after the Mexico win last month and whether he should shoulder some blame for way the team played in the Jamaica loss.
"You can blame me, no problem, it wouldn't be the first time," Klnsmann said. "There was no overconfidence. There was definitely some excitement coming out of Mexico City, but we expected a difficult match tonight. We watched the Jamaica team a couple times on tape, sent scouts down here. They have a very good side. They were very physical and hungry, and they got back into the game with a free kick. They won the game with another free kick. So you don't even need to talk about tactics because that has nothing to do with whether you played a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 or whatever. You lost the game because of two free kicks."
But tactically, the U.S. could have been better. Width could have been provided by the earlier use of Brek Shea, for example, and José Torres could have been an option to provide some help with possession. Not having the injured Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan was difficult, but Klinsmann didn't have to go with three defensive mids.
The loss of the midfield battle had a lot to do with the lack of service for forwards Jozy Altidore and Gómez. "We need to definitely come together and sort this out," Gómez said. "Guys like me an Jozy and even Terrence [Boyd, a sub vs. Jamaica], we depend heavily on creativity and service. We need to figure out a way to get more of that. Clint did as much as he could for us today. He always gives his all, and he's a great player. But we need more players like that. We got a lot more in the second half, but it was too little, too late."
Dempsey, too, was hoping for sizable improvement by Tuesday. "We've got to work on something, got to create more chances ... I think playing on a better pitch will play to our strengths a little bit more, but we've got to figure out a way, whether it's more width or crosses or just doing a better job keeping possession and moving the ball. There's a lot of things you can look at in this game that we need to improve on."
He's right. But three points on Tuesday would change a lot of minds. Three points on Tuesday would ease a lot of the pressure that now surrounds this U.S. team after a tie and a loss in its last two semifinal round games.
"If we get three points on Tuesday, we'll be OK," says Howard.
Anything else, and you can really start sounding the alarms.