U.S. can't afford to have another disastrous Jamaica visit
IRISH TOWN, Jamaica -- The U.S. meets Jamaica in a World Cup qualifier here on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, BeIN Sport), and before I descend into Kingston on Thursday I've spent the last couple days getting some anniversary R&R with my wife in the Blue Mountains 3,000 feet above the city.
You run into some intriguing folks up here at Strawberry Hill. There's the owner, Chris Blackwell, a music legend who founded Island Records, produced the breakthrough albums of Bob Marley and U2 and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. There are the occasional bold-faced music names, who the last few days have included Kenny Chesney and Aston "Family Man" Barrett, an original member of the Wailers, Marley's old band.
And then there are some friendly traveling soccer fans. We had a couple Red Stripes the other day with David and Dylan McConnellogue, a father and son from Colorado. David used to play pickup ball with a teenaged Conor Casey, the Philadelphia Union forward, and he and his son are here for both Jamaica games this week, against Mexico (a 1-0 loss on Tuesday) and the U.S. on Friday. There are worse things to do than to combine a nice trip and a big U.S. game, and we're thinking about doing the same in Costa Rica before the qualifier there on September 6.
But while the vibe in Jamaica may be gloriously chill, the mood around the U.S. team is locked in. The Americans lost 2-1 here in the semifinal round of qualifying last September, the lowest moment of coach Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure, and the team arrived earlier than usual to get accustomed to the surroundings.
What's at stake here? Last-place Jamaica (0-2-2) is fighting for its World Cup qualifying survival, with just two points from four games, and the Reggae Boyz desperately need a win. As for the U.S. (1-1-1, fourth place), anything less than seven points from its three qualifiers in the next 12 days would be disappointing. Klinsmann's team got a much-needed four points in the two March games, but it can't afford to slip up in a group that is tighter than expected so far.
The top three teams in the six-team Hexagonal group will qualify automatically for World Cup 2014, while the fourth-place team will take on New Zealand in a home-and-home playoff in November for another spot.
Here are the current Hex standings:
Perhaps more useful at this point are the "win at home, tie on the road" standings, given that the U.S. has only played one home game, while this will be Jamaica's third home game in the Hex. If you win at home and tie on the road, you'll qualify for the World Cup. Here's how each team is faring by that standard:
Costa Rica (-1)
United States (-1)
Oh Captain, My Captain
My story on the U.S. national team captaincy is in this week's Sports Illustrated magazine. I spoke to a dozen or so people for the piece, from members of the current U.S. team to previous U.S. players, captains and coaches. There was plenty of good stuff that didn't make the magazine piece, so here are some solid nuggets:
• Some people might have been surprised when Klinsmann included Jermaine Jones among his four top leaders on the U.S. team along with captain Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley. But Klinsmann thinks Jones provides a critical function on the team.
"[Jones] doesn't shy away from putting people into place," Klinsmann told me. "It doesn't make him very sympathetic sometimes, because if you go in the face of some teammates it's not going to be what they want. But he does it for the better of the team. So I give him that freedom here. I tell Jermaine often, 'You don't shy away from anything. If you need to put somebody in line, you put him in line. Don't hold back!'"
"The players see it from the moment he's on the training field. He just changes the energy. In the January camp, he flew in after a red card [in the German league]. Boy, after 10 minutes the training was moving on a different level. Because he told everybody: This is business. That's what we need."
• Why didn't Klinsmann name Michael Bradley captain? Many of the people I spoke to, including former U.S. coach Bruce Arena, thought Bradley, 25, would be the choice. But Klinsmann had other ideas for now. "In a certain way it's an age thing," said Klinsmann. "But he definitely has the characteristics to become a very, very good leader. It's just in his nature and the way he was brought up by his dad. He's always looking after other players."
"But in this kind of decision it's experience -- and age-related as well. Michael is in a phase where he's still defining himself a bit. His first year in Rome went OK. He knows it has to get better. So he's still kind of jumping from adventure to adventure. But I think he has all the qualities to be a future captain."
• The term Captain America to describe the U.S. captain is a lot more popular in Great Britain than in the United States. "I run into Rangers fans from all over, and they still call me Captain America," says Reyna, who played at Rangers in Scotland. "It's funny, because it's not something we use here. But that cartoon character was really big in the UK."
• I know that Arena still isn't happy about the way things worked out with Reyna in the short time they were at the New York Red Bulls together, but Arena went out of his way not to compliment Reyna for the job he did as U.S. captain at World Cup 2002, where the Americans reached the quarterfinals.
"Sometimes [the captaincy] is critically important. Other times it's not that important because the group around that so-called captain makes up for maybe the lack of qualities that captain may provide at the moment," Arena said. "It is a group dynamic. You'd like to believe in a perfect world everyone assumes the responsibilities of a captain. Often that happens in good teams. When they're not good teams, your leadership is fractured."
"In my history with U.S. Soccer, and this just sticks out, Earnie Stewart was about the best captain I could ever have imagined. He really understood what the national team meant, and for a guy who didn't live a long time in the U.S. he understood the whole thing: His role, the value of the team. He accepted all those things, the good and bad, and it was never about him. He was our captain for the opening game of the 2002 World Cup and remained in many ways our captain even without the armband."
When I pointed out that Reyna was his captain in 2002 and '06 and asked about Reyna's leadership style, this is what Arena said: "Quiet. His play validated his captaincy, so when he played well he was a good captain. When he didn't play as well, he wasn't as good a captain. That's not unusual. Because of his quiet nature, his play dictated the kind of role he was playing."
To other players, though, Reyna had something special that earned him instant respect to be captain. "Claudio had an aura about him from a soccer perspective," said Lalas, "where even though he was younger than me, if Claudio said something you always knew it was thought out. There was a respect that this guy was a really, really good player."
• It was interesting for me to learn about the armband itself. U.S. kit man Jesse Bignami brings 15 different styles of captain's armbands with the team.
"The way you wear your armband is a very personal thing," said Lalas, who was the U.S. captain a handful of times in the 1990s. "I'm a bit more flamboyant. Had it been any kind of regular thing, I would have tried for something a bit more personal, like sequins or a Stevie Nicks-esque band around my arm. That would have been cool. Now FIFA does the thing in World Cups where the captains all wear the same armbands. I don't approve of that at all."
"They probably do need to develop an armband that stays on your arm, because it always flies off," said Reyna. "I was always playing with it and it was coming off. I liked to pick a color that matched the uniform, either a blue or red one. One time I tried an American flag bandana during a game, and that wasn't working either."