DECATUR, Ga.—The question facing the U.S. national team here in steamy Atlanta is whether Wednesday’s opponent will match the occasion.
The latter, in general terms, certainly is significant. It’s a continental championship semifinal that will be played before a sell-out crowd of nearly 70,000 inside the Georgia Dome. The winner will be 90 minutes from regional immortality and a step closer to qualifying for the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Those trappings typically suggest a showdown between peers—powers on relatively equal footing who could win or lose on a given day. Jamaica, however, hasn't enjoyed equal footing with the U.S. The Reggae Boyz have defeated the Americans only once in 22 meetings. They have advanced to the Gold Cup semifinals for the first time in 17 years, while the five-time champion U.S. is on the cusp of a sixth consecutive final.
As coach Jurgen Klinsmann said before Saturday’s 6-0 quarterfinal demolition of Cuba, “We are definitely the team to beat in this tournament.”
But being the team to beat doesn’t mean you can’t be beat, and this particular Gold Cup hasn’t been kind to the odds. None of the five Central American entrants won a game during the group stage and all four Caribbean teams advanced.
Mexico tied Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago, then was fortunate to avoid a penalty kick shootout against Costa Rica in Sunday’s quarterfinal.
The U.S. has had its tough moments as well and labored at times during first-round wins over Honduras and Haiti. If not for Clint Dempsey’s Gold Cup finishing clinic, the Americans might be among the surprises.
“It’s a very challenging competition because you don’t know what to expect,” Klinsmann said last week.
That’s why the U.S. has little choice but to anticipate an opponent worthy of Wednesday’s occasion. Jamaica might not be considered one of CONCACAF’s most threatening foes over a typical 90 minutes, but this Gold Cup hasn’t been typical.
The Reggae Boyz are the only team other than the U.S. to win three games outright and are stocked with players who compete in England and MLS. And their one victory over the U.S.? It was relatively recent, and it was no meaningless game. Jamaica won a 2012 World Cup qualifier between the teams, 2-1, in Kingston. Three members of the U.S. Gold Cup squad—Kyle Beckerman, Fabian Johnson and Dempsey—played that night.
“When we came into this tournament, we knew we had the target on our back. Everyone wants to try and beat us,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said Tuesday as the U.S. prepared to train here in suburban Atlanta. “Obviously teams are somewhat going to sit back and try and defend and knowing the players that we have, try and hurt us on the counterattack. In that aspect, it’s a bit similar. But in saying that, every game is different. Every game presents its own challenges in terms of the individual personnel that each team has. And Jamaica, I think, will be a bit unique in that aspect.”
Every team the U.S. has faced has tried to absorb pressure and counter. But Jamaica likely will be the best at it. A defense anchored by English Premier Leaguers Wes Morgan (Leicester City) and Adrian Mariappa (Crystal Palace) hasn’t yielded a goal since the 37th minute of the Gold Cup opener against Costa Rica. The midfield is athletic and experienced. FC Dallas’s Je-Vaughn Watson will be familiar with MLS opposition like Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman, while the likes of Jobi McAnuff and Garath McLeary, veterans of the English leagues, will be comfortable defending and countering with pace and vigor.
“They’re a lot more organized,” U.S. defender DaMarcus Beasley said Monday. “They’ve got players individually that can hurt you but for me, they’re more sound defensively. They’ve always had good attacking players, even 10-15 years ago. But now, they’re adding their defensive experience in the back four, organization that the coaches brought into the team. They’re going to be a very tough team to break down.”
Beasley was one of three roster replacements brought in following the group stage. The U.S. back four was uncomfortably inconsistent during the first three games. Although no one was poor for an entire 90 minutes, there were just enough mistakes to cause concern.
Young center backs Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks were beaten one-on-one or pulled from their positions on a couple of occasions, and right back Timmy Chandler continued to be hit or miss. Beasley’s arrival portended a shift from left back to right for Fabian Johnson, but the Houston Dynamo veteran missed the Cuba game with a calf issue. Beasley trained fully for the first time on Tuesday.
Brooks was suspended for the quarterfinal and Omar Gonzalez stepped in and scored his first international goal. Cuba was so poor going forward, however, that making an in-depth assessment of the U.S. back line’s performance was difficult. Klinsmann has offered public support for his younger defenders, arguing that games are the best teacher. But with the margin of error narrowing as the tournament progresses, the manager faces a significant decision—opt for experienced players like Beasley or Gonzalez, or continue to trust in Alvarado, Chandler and Brooks.
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“Obviously, it’s not ideal,” Guzan said of the rotating back four. “You’ve got to deal with suspensions. You’ve got to deal with the fact that games are played so closely together. You’ve got to deal with the conditions where guys need to make sure they’re fully recovered and ready to go. You have to find a way to deal with it. From here on out, obviously, it’s just about two games. It’s about finding a way [Wednesday] night to win and put ourselves in position to make sure we win the Gold Cup … [U.S. coaches] know these players. They know everybody in and out … Obviously everybody brings something to the table and that’s why they’re all in camp.”
The U.S. was held largely in check by teams with less on-paper talent during the group stage. At this point, Jamaica has more momentum than the Americans’ first-round opponents could muster and, in a tournament where games typically don’t follow form, that might be enough to make things interesting at the Georgia Dome. To this point, someone like Dempsey or Gyasi Zardes or Aron Jóhannsson has made the play the U.S. needed. But Jamaica’s Giles Barnes or Darren Mattocks might be just as capable.
The Americans remain the clear favorite. And they remain the team to beat. While there’s plenty of respect for Jamaica, the U.S. knows that if it plays to its potential, there will be an even bigger occasion on Sunday in Philadelphia.
“I just think we have to play our game and not try and adjust to Jamaica—try to play our style of game,” Johnson said.
“As we always say, it’s about us,” Beasley said. “It’s about the guys in the locker room and how we go about the game, how we push the game, how we get everyone up to close to 100% as we can. That’s what the game is going to be about.”