By the time the October World Cup qualifying window is over, the U.S. men's national team will be nearly halfway through the road to Qatar. It'll have faced all but one of its seven opponents—Mexico, saving the best for last—while being equally exposed to the rigors of the road and the friendly confines of three games at home.
The opening window was a crash course. So much went wrong—both self-inflicted and inflicted by inspired opposition—that blanket calls for a nine-point week were quickly checked. There shouldn't be any arrogance or ignorance entering the upcoming matches against Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica, even if the ultimate goal of securing all nine points ostensibly remains the same. Seven would likely be viewed as sufficient, while anything less could open the door for further scrutiny (depending on how the rest of the region's matches unfold, that is; everything is relative to the Concacaf Octagonal table).
“Maybe we were just a little bit naive and we didn’t really know what to expect, and that’s why we had to use those first three games as a learning process,” U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams said Monday. “It’s been one training [in this camp], but at the end of the day, you can tell that the group is focused.”
The focus will be needed. Over the next three games the U.S. will go up against two of the region's top goalkeepers in Jamaica's Andre Blake and Costa Rica's Keylor Navas, while also facing a trip to face an upstart Panama side that already held Mexico to a draw on its home soil. Whatever advantage in FIFA ranking the U.S. may have in each match, there's typically little in the way of an easy result in Concacaf's qualifying slog, and with Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and John Brooks all unavailable, the U.S. isn't playing with a full deck.
But what about its opponents? Here's a closer look at the U.S.'s three foes and what each one brings to the table.
Match info: Thursday, Oct. 7, 7:30 p.m. ET; Q2 Stadium, Austin, Texas
After one window: Eighth place, 0-2-1, one point (2–1 loss at Mexico, 3–0 loss vs. Panama, 1–1 draw vs. Costa Rica)
Sometimes it's hard to decipher a "must-win game" from a "game you should win, or else," but this one definitely leans toward the latter for the U.S. Due to the win in Honduras, things aren't dire from a mathematical standpoint, but playing at home, with a partisan crowd against the last-place team in the table—that's a game you should be winning. The two teams met in Texas on July 25 in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, where Matthew Hoppe's 83rd-minute goal was the difference, but Jamaica has a few new tricks up its sleeve after expanding its recruiting efforts to land England-based players who have Jamaican eligibility. Chief among them is West Ham's Michail Antonio, whose five goals are second-most in the Premier League (Mohamed Salah and Jamie Vardy each have six).
The Reggae Boyz were a bit of a mess from a chemistry standpoint in the opening window, though, and for good reason. You can't just call in a selection of players who haven't featured together and expect to catch lightning in a bottle. On top of that, not all of those players were eligible to play in two of the first three matches due to the U.K.'s travel restrictions, and the worst result of the opening window was the one match in which Antonio was able to play. Now, with some time training together in full leading up to match day, the expectation is that Jamaica will be improved, though there should still be ample question as to whether manager Theodore Whitmore can mold the team into a more cohesive unit.
Noticeably absent is Leon Bailey, the injured Aston Villa winger who is arguably Jamaica's most dangerous player. Two other key players, Reading defender Liam Moore and Charleroi forward Shamar Nicholson, have been included despite suffering recent injuries.
Like Antonio, Brentford's Ethan Pinnock, Bournemouth's Jamal Lowe, QPR's Andre Gray and Rangers' Kemar Roofe are all relatively new additions to this work in progress, which, on paper, has the makings of a promising project. By the time it's ready to reach its potential, though, it could be too late, and there's pressure on the team to come up with points, and fast.
(UPDATE, 10/6: Antonio withdrew from Jamaica's squad on Tuesday night, saying that, "given the logistical and travel difficulties involved at present, it is better for me to remain with [West Ham] in London at this time. I remain fully committed to Jamaica and look forward to representing my country in the future.” According the Jamaica Gleaner, only 18 of the players on the squad had arrived in Texas as of Tuesday, and Pinnock was replaced on the squad by Jamoi Topey. Moore and midfielder Daniel Johnson are also reportedly unavailable with their respective injuries.)
Goalkeepers: Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union), Dillon Barnes (Queens Park Rangers), Jeadine White (Cavalier)
Defenders: Javain Brown (Vancouver Whitecaps), Oniel Fisher (LA Galaxy), Damion Lowe (Al-Ittihad), Kemar Lawrence (Toronto FC), Adrian Mariappa (Unattached), Liam Moore (Reading), Alvas Powell (Philadelphia Union), Jamoi Topey (Cavalier)
Midfielders: Bobby Decordova-Reid (Fulham), Daniel Johnson (Preston North End), Tyreek Magee (Eupen), Je-Vaughn Watson (Humble Lions), Devon Williams (Miami FC), Kemar Roofe (Rangers)
Forwards: Javon East (Santos de Guápiles), Junior Flemmings (Birmingham Legion), Andre Gray (Queens Park Rangers), Jamal Lowe (Bournemouth), Shamar Nicholson (Charleroi)
Manager: Theodore Whitmore
Match info: Sunday, Oct. 10, 6 p.m. ET; Estadio Rommel Fernández, Panama City, Panama
After one window: Fourth place, 1-0-2, five points (0–0 draw vs. Costa Rica, 3–0 win at Jamaica, 1–1 draw vs. Mexico)
Los Canaleros were the surprise package of the opening window, and they've brought in some reinforcements, with veterans Harold Cummings and Armando Cooper among seven to be added to the squad after missing the first three games. Taking points off Costa Rica and Mexico, albeit at home, and then absolutely dismantling Jamaica in Kingston sent a statement that perhaps there's another run to the World Cup in the Central American nation after all.
Panama will be coming off a match at El Salvador, which the U.S. can attest is a grueling experience, but it does not have any players currently in camp carrying a yellow card, which means that, barring a red in San Salvador, the full complement of players will be available three days later in Panama City.
The U.S. has never lost a qualifier to Panama (6-0-2 all-time), but it could be without England-based Zack Steffen and Antonee Robinson for the match, given Panama's place on the U.K.'s "red list" for COVID-19 travel restrictions (even if British government has relaxed quarantine protocols for fully vaccinated players).
Goalkeepers: José Calderón (San Francisco), Luis Mejía (Fénix), Orlando Mosquera (Always Ready)
Defenders: César Blackman (Dunajská Streda), Harold Cummings (Always Ready), Eric Davis (Dunajská Streda), Fidel Escobar (Alcorcón), Jorge Gutiérrez (Tauro), Óscar Linton (Imabari), Michael Amir Murillo (Anderlecht), Jiovany Ramos (Atlético Venezuela)
Midfielders: Abdiel Ayarza (Cienciano), Yoel Bárcenas (Leganés), Armando Cooper (Maccabi Petah Tikva), Aníbal Godoy (Nashville SC), Eduardo Guerrero (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Cristian Martínez (Plaza Amador), Alberto Quintero (Universitario), José Luis Rodríguez (Gijón), César Yanis (Zaragoza)
Forwards: Abdiel Arroyo (Maccabi Petah Tikva), Rolando Blackburn (The Strongest), Jair Catuy (Always Ready), Ismael Díaz (Tauro), Freddy Góndola (Táchira), Alfredo Stephens (Aragua), Gabriel Torres (Alajuelense)
Manager: Thomas Christiansen
Match info: Wednesday, Oct. 13, 7 p.m. ET; Lower.com Field, Columbus, Ohio
After one window: Fifth place, 0-1-2, two points (0–0 draw at Panama, 1–0 loss to Mexico, 1–1 draw vs. Jamaica)
Los Ticos underwhelmed in the opening window, taking just one point off two home games. They'll have Honduras on the road and El Salvador at home before facing the U.S., so their outlook and level of urgency will be dictated greatly by how those two matches unfold.
It was this fixture in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup that drew so much attention for the choice of location, with Red Bull Arena offering little home advantage for the U.S. in a 2–0 defeat. The scorer of the two goals that day, Marco Ureña, hasn't been with Costa Rica since a February '20 friendly defeat to the U.S., but veterans Johan Venegas and Joel Campbell, who combined for three of four goals in the 4–0 defeat of the U.S. in San José earlier in the cycle that spelled the end for Jurgen Klinsmann, remain with the team.
This match will take place in Columbus, where fans undoubtedly will still be thrilled to stage a qualifier while also lamenting the loss of the Mexico fixture to Cincinnati. Nevertheless, this game will feature a pro-U.S. crowd, and if it's anything like the last U.S.–Costa Rica meeting, the supporters will have plenty to cheer. The 4–0 friendly win in Utah following the Concacaf Nations League final was lopsided, and Costa Rica didn't look like it had much of an interest in competing. It wasn't a day without consequence, though—manager Ronald González wound up being fired, with Luis Fernando Suárez taking charge in time for the Gold Cup.
Things haven't been great with Suárez at the helm, though, either. Costa Rica swept its group matches but then was dumped out in the Gold Cup quarterfinals by Canada, and has just one goal in its last five games, total.
Despite all the veterans that remain on this team—Navas, Campbell, Venegas, Bryan Ruiz, Bryan Oviedo and Celso Borges among them—the inability to bring along and develop a new generation of talent has caused Costa Rica to dwindle. Suárez hasn't helped in that regard, though, as his public spat with 19-year-old Manfred Ugalde, a striker at Twente in the Netherlands' top flight, resulted in the promising player vowing never to play for Costa Rica again as long as Suárez is the manager. It's a long way from the pura vida.
There's reason to be wary of any veteran-laden team in Concacaf, especially one with Navas in goal, but Costa Rica does seem ripe for the picking at this juncture, and if the U.S. is going to take points off Los Ticos, now's the time—the U.S. is 0-9-1 all-time in Costa Rica, and that's where the qualifying campaign ends. The Americans will hope that by the time that March 29 trip comes around, their ticket to Qatar will already be punched.
Goalkeepers: Aarón Cruz (Saprissa), Leonel Moreira (Alajuelense), Keylor Navas (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Ricardo Blanco (Saprissa), Francisco Calvo (Chicago Fire), Óscar Duarte (Levante), Fernán Faerrón (Alajuelense), Keysher Fuller (Herediano), Giancarlo González (Alajuelense), Rónald Matarrita (FC Cincinnati), Bryan Oviedo (Copenhagen), Juan Pablo Vargas (Millonarios), Kendall Waston (Saprissa)
Midfielders: Celso Borges (Alajuelense), Luis Díaz (Columbus Crew), Orlando Galo (Herediano), Randall Leal (Nashville SC), Jimmy Marín (Saprissa), Bryan Ruiz (Alajuelense), Youstin Salas (Municipal Grecia), Yeltsin Tejeda (Herediano), Johan Venegas (Alajuelense)
Forwards: Joel Campbell (Monterrey), Jonathan Moya (Anyang), José Guillermo Ortiz (Herediano), Kenneth Vargas (Municipal Grecia)
Manager: Luis Fernando Suárez
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