Jozy Altidore has been in a bit of a slump lately. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Friday’s World Cup qualifier means nothing to the U.S. national team on paper.
At 5-2-1 in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal, the Americans already have sealed their spot in Brazil and have next to no chance of securing the FIFA ranking required to snatch a seed. A win over Jamaica would feel good and send the Sporting Park crowd home happy, but the result is pretty much irrelevant in the grand scheme.
Missing regulars like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is in no position to use Friday’s match as a tactical dress rehearsal. The manager will have to make do with what he has – which he’s become increasingly adept at doing as he tests and tweaks the player pool.
But the game still has meaning. Just ask DaMarcus Beasley, a veteran of three World Cups.
“We want to win our group. I think you can see from the players [Klinsmann] selected for these two games that we want to finish off on a good note,” the converted left back said. “Right now there are spots for Brazil, and everyone knows that. There's 23 spots that go on the plane next summer. You want to be one of them that's on the plane.”
Whether the stakes are high or low, Klinsmann isn’t one to take his foot off the gas. He’ll expect the same from his players. Evaluations are underway.
Jamaica assistant coach Vin Blaine told the Jamaica Observer, “I really don’t think the USA are going to come and play us hard knowing that they already qualified for the World Cup. I don’t think they will come and play with the same intensity as if they were trying to qualify.”
Blaine hasn’t been paying attention. Klinsmann’s team attacked Bosnia-Herzegovina while trailing by two goals in an away friendly. They’ll almost certainly run hard at Jamaica before a partisan crowd.
Here are three things to watch in a World Cup qualifier that will mean plenty to the men vying for minutes in Brazil:
Jumpstarting Jozy: Nearly all strikers are streaky. And Jozy Altidore is in a bit of a slump at the moment.
He re-emerged spectacularly as the national team’s first-choice striker in June with goals in four straight games. He then had three in the August win over Bosnia. But Sunderland has slowed him down. The struggling side is winless in English Premier League play and has already fired a coach. Altidore hasn’t settled in and often looks like he did during Klinsmann’s early days – in position to do little more than occupy defenders and fight to get a hold of more speculative passes.
He has one goal since that hat trick in Sarajevo. It came in Sunderland’s 4-2 League Cup win over third-tier MK Dons on Aug. 27.
“I’m personally very, very happy with how Jozy is coming along in the Premier League so far,” Klinsmann said. “Yes he hasn’t scored the goals yet that he expects from himself, but I watch his games and he’s high energy and he’s a handful. He challenges back lines, and he’s often by himself and the support is not what it should be … He just needs to be patient, and his goals will come.”
Friday would be an excellent start. It may not carry over to Sunderland, but maintaining Altidore’s form and confidence with the U.S. will be paramount heading into 2014.
The continuing question in back: With Omar Gonzalez out with the hip injury he suffered last Sunday, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler are the likely starting tandem in central defense. It would mark the first time the pair plays there together for the U.S. It’s about time Klinsmann had a look.
Besler has soared up the national team depth chart thanks to his savvy, one-on-one defending and comfort with the ball. Capped 11 times, he’s still searching for consistency at the highest level. Cameron currently is a man without a position. He plays right back for Stoke City, but Klinsmann reiterated again this week that he thinks the former Houston Dynamo star is playing out of position in England and belongs in the middle. Cameron likely won’t displace Bradley or Jermaine Jones in midfield, so he’ll probably have to oust either Besler or Gonzalez in back.
Cameron isn’t as big or effective in the air as Gonzalez and doesn’t read the game like Besler, but he’s more athletic and versatile than both. Friday will be a fascinating test against the fast and desperate Jamaicans.
Reeling Reggae Boyz: Friday’s game means everything to visitors. Despite a miserable 0-4-4 record in the Hex and a winless streak dating back almost a year, Jamaica somehow remain in contention for a spot in the World Cup. Victories against the U.S. and Honduras next week, along with a draw between Mexico and Panama on Friday and then losses by both teams in their qualifying finales on Oct. 15 would send the Boyz to a home-and-home playoff with New Zealand in November.
Coach Winfried Schäfer, hired in July, has cut some familiar names from the squad and named a team featuring only seven players with at least 10 international caps. His roster includes five MLS players, including Colorado Rapids rookie sensation Deshorn Brown, who will look to make his Jamaica debut. He may get a shot for a team that scored a pitiful three goals in its eight qualifiers this year.
Jamaica has never won on American soil and noticed last month that an early goal is the best way to knock the U.S. off kilter. Klinsmann’s side has a habit of getting better as a game wears on. Look for Schäfer to prioritize speed, and expect the visitors to try to win free kicks that might trouble an inconsistent U.S. back four. If they’re unable to crack goalkeeper Tim Howard early, a long night likely awaits.