U.S. 1, Jamaica 0: Klinsmann Pulls a Joe Namath

He didn’t try to kiss the sideline reporter during his halftime interview, but U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann did that other thing Joe Namath is famous for: he guaranteed a victory for his team in a huge game, and his team went out and got that victory.

They did it pretty comfortably, too, for the first hour anyway. In the first half, the U.S. controlled 80% of possession, completed 91% of their passes, and outshot the visitors 8-0. Yet they had nothing to show for it at the break.

The Americans continued to dictate play in the second session, and in the 55th minute, they finally broke through on a mistake by Jamaican keeper Dwayne Miller—an ironic turn, since he had been sensational to that point. After making several terrific saves to keep the score level, Miller failed to deal properly with Herculez Gomez’s 30-yard free kick, pushing the curling shot into the side netting for a 1-0 U.S. lead.

Jamaica came out of their defensive shell after the goal and gave the U.S. some nervy moments down the stretch, but the Yanks held on for the three points that put them back on top of the group on goal difference with two games to play in this round.

Highlights:

Three thoughts on the 9/11 win in the heartland:

The Frankie Hejduk-led Columbus Crew Stadium crowd was the 12th man.

Former U.S. national teamer and two-time MLS Cup champ Hejduk, now a member of the Crew’s front office, donned his old USMNT jersey and led a rabid section of U.S. supporters. Here he is, courtesy of soccer scribe Brian Straus:

Midfielders Graham Zusi and Danny Williams helped their USMNT causes the most last night.

Zusi clanged a shot off the crossbar in the opening moments, showing he was there to play right out of the gate, and Williams later nearly knocked down the upright with a thundering 30-yarder that somehow stayed out of the goal. Both excelled otherwise, too, with Zusi complementing Steve Cherundolo perfectly on the right flank, and Williams dominating the middle on both sides of the ball. Now, here’s hoping Williams stays in that spot. He’d be a better option behind Michael Bradley than Jermaine Jones.

Both Brek Shea and Maurice Edu are in a funk.

They came on as late-game subs, surely with instructions to keep the ball and help kill the game for the U.S., but both nearly did the opposite, squandering possession and looking unsure of themselves. Edu needs to settle in and get games at Stoke City, where he recently signed alongside Geoff Cameron (who showed last night that he now owns one of the U.S. center back slots, after only eight appearances). Shea needs to get his head sorted out.

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Who Should Start in Midfield for the U.S. Tonight?

Will he be smiling at 10:00 ET tonight?

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: to hardcore soccer fans and observers, games are like Rorschach tests. Everyone sees something different.

Take last Friday’s dismal U.S. World Cup qualifier against Jamaica. To hear this fella tell it, Kyle Beckerman single-handedly bungled the game for the Americans (see 10th paragraph). For this guy, the culprit was Jermaine Jones, who, the writer says, brings little besides physical effort (and yellow cards, we’d add) to the table. Finally, to complete the set of holding-midfielder scapegoats, this scribe tossed Maurice Edu under the bus with Jones.

Hey, at least they all agreed the problem was in midfield. So do we, and it’s a problem that’s difficult to solve for tonight’s return match—a game the U.S. has to win to keep themselves in a comfortable position to advance to the CONCACAF Hexagonal.

According to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (courtesy of Paul Carr), the U.S.’s percentage chance to advance to the final stage of qualifying is 92.5 with a win tonight, 72.9 with a tie, and 56.0 with a loss.

They obviously want to keep that percentage in the 90s, but to do that they’ll have to make changes from the group that stumbled on Friday.

We already know that Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra will start in defense. (Aside: Jurgen Klinsmann called Bocanegra “a very, very important piece of the whole puzzle,” which … really, Jurgen? Don’t get us wrong, Bocanegra is an excellent player and an experienced veteran, but the U.S. defense didn’t concede many chances on Friday; it was the midfield fouling Jamaicans in dangerous areas that led to the goals. Not sure how Boca makes a “very, very important” difference there. But back to the post.)

In addition to the backline changes, there will likely be new faces in midfield. But who? All of the available combinations have a shortage of experience and/or quality. Here are some lineup possibilities, in order of which ones we’d prefer:

• A 4-4-2, aka The Keep It Simple. This is the formation most of these guys are most comfortable with. Your backline here is rock-solid and Edu holds in midfield while Dempsey ranges forward. Zusi and Shea work the flanks, offensively and defensively, and the entire midfield links with the forwards, who aren’t starved of service, or stranded as in a one-striker setup. This formation encourages a compact team shape, which they’ll need to be able to take the game to Jamaica.

—————————Howard

Cherundolo—Bocanegra—Cameron—Johnson

——Zusi——Edu—Dempsey—Shea

—————Altidore——Gomez

4-1-3-2 Again, staying with two forwards, but Edu roams in front of the backline, destroying Jamaican forays (Williams pitches in there too) while Dempsey and Shea link up with the strikers. This would encourage wide play, something missing entirely on Friday, while providing enough defensive starch.

—————Howard

Cherundolo—Boca—Cameron—Johnson

—————Edu

Williams—Dempsey—Shea

—Altidore—Gomez

4-3-3 We’re generally not a fan of this for the U.S., because every time it’s been deployed it quickly devolves into a 4-5-1 with a fatally isolated striker. But you’d think the U.S. could dictate pace at home, on the well-manicured Crew Stadium field, so…

—————Howard

Cherundolo—Boca—Cameron—Johnson

Zusi————Dempsey———Shea

——Altidore——Boyd——Gomez

This would be a very offensive minded setup—with three bona fide strikers on the field—requiring a high percentage of possession. High-voltage possibilities, but probably better suited to a low-stakes friendly.

Some have called for the skillful Jose Torres to play tonight, and he’s a guy who, theoretically, could fit into a playmaking role in any of the above formations. But his track record with the U.S.—and he’s had plenty of chances—does not inspire us to trust him in a game like this one. He has a habit of disappearing for long stretches, he can be overmatched by physical, athletic opponents (Jamaica gets checks in both categories), and he’s a defensive non-entity. In fact, we’d rather see Joe Corona in the U.S. midfield tonight than Torres.

Whatever combination of players takes the field, hopefully for U.S. fans they’ll be ready to perform, and possibly gain some extra motivation and focus from the game date (9/11).

Broadcast starts at 8:00 pm ET on ESPN2.

Following Loss in Kingston, U.S. Faces Test of Nerves in Columbus

The United States takes on Jamaica tomorrow night in Columbus (8:00 ET, ESPN2) and while, strictly speaking, it’s not a must-win game, it’s just about as close as you can get to one.

If the Yanks tie or lose, they’ll almost certainly need wins in their remaining two games—at Antigua and Barbuda and home against Guatemala—to avert the disaster of premature World Cup elimination.

Is coach Jurgen Klinsmann worried?

Here’s his reply, according to Yanks Abroad’s Brian Sciaretta, when asked at today’s press conference what it would mean if the U.S. lost on Tuesday night:

“We won’t. Don’t worry.”

Those words will take on an unwanted resonance if the U.S. does happen to lose tomorrow night, and based on the team’s dismal performance in their 2-1 loss on Friday in Kingston, they may not have been the best choice for his response. Because his team did not look good; in fact, they looked like they’re in trouble.

Of course, the change of venue will help, from the improved field to the home crowd, and Klinsmann is not likely to field three defensive midfielders in an all-but must win game, so there should be more creativity in the lineup.

But the U.S. is shorthanded, Jamaica has some skill, they’re extremely athletic, and they’re going to be loose and confident following their historic win on Friday.

This one won’t be easy.

Klinsmann has already said that Steve Cherundolo (calf) will be back in the starting XI, along with Carlos Bocanegra (healthy scratch), who will captain the team.

There should also be changes in midfield, with the possible inclusion of Brek Shea, who has looked good in training, according to reports.

But the absences of Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan (and the long-term absence of Stuart Holden) have exposed the U.S.’s lack of midfield attackers. Friday’s group of Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones were defensive plodders, prone to turnovers.

In addition to Shea, Klinsmann could bring in Jose Torres or Graham Zusi or Danny Williams. He could also (and we’d like to see it) move the dynamic Fabian Johnson from the backline to midfield. Dempsey is also a midfield option.

The problem with most of Klinsmann’s current midfield choices is that, except for Dempsey, they generally lack WCQ experience. They also haven’t played together as a group, and, in the cases of Shea and Torres, they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent.

U.S. fans would hate to see an untested combination fall behind early and have to chase the game in these pressure circumstances.

Highlights from Friday’s game here:

U.S. vs Jamaica: Will We See Jozy Altidore and Terrence Boyd Paired Up Top Tomorrow Night?

The U.S. heads into Friday night’s World Cup qualifier in Kingston (8:00 p.m. ET, beIN Sport) missing two of their top three players in Landon Donovan (hamstring) and Michael Bradley (quadriceps).

The third member of that trio, Clint Dempsey, is on the roster but hasn’t played a game in nearly three months while sorting out his club situation (he trained with Fulham’s youth side during the Premier League preseason).

Given those absences, and the veteran leadership missing with them, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will probably go with the most experienced players available (except Dempsey, who seems likely to be used as a sub). That means, if Klinsmann sends out two strikers, 30-year-old Herculez Gomez will probably start alongside Jozy Altidore.

But many U.S. fans are itching to see what Altidore—who has already scored four goals for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar this season—could do alongside Terrence Boyd, who’s also off to a hot start, with four goals in six appearances for Rapid Vienna.

That duo’s combination of size, power, speed and skill would be a handful for any backline, and would certainly occupy Jamaica’s inexperienced group, limiting any notions they might have of getting forward.

The U.S. has never won a World Cup qualifier in Jamaica, but they’d never won in Italy or Mexico City before this year, so maybe now’s the time. And maybe some unexpected selections, like Michael Orozco Fiscal in Mexico City, are just what the team needs to achieve another unprecedented result.

Here is Klinsmann’s roster for tomorrow and next Tuesday’s return engagement with the Reggae Boyz in Columbus, Ohio (8:00 p.m., ESPN2, ESPN3, Univision):

GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

DEFENDERS: Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Maurice Edu (Stoke City), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Michael Orozco Fiscal (San Luis), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City)

MIDFIELDERS: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Jose Torres (Pachuca), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur), Herculez Gomez (Santos).

Here’s our projected starting XI: Tim Howard, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu, Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore.

We’d rather see Edu in central defense with Cameron (more speed and athleticism to counter Jamaica’s surplus of both), and maybe Zusi in midfield to add creativity to that defensive-minded group. But Klinsmann will probably opt for Bocanegra’s experience to start, in hopes of settling and organizing the backline in the hostile environment of a road qualifier.

Donovan Sits, U.S. Drops Jamaica 2-0

Apparently, the correct answer to our question last week regarding LD and Deuce was: Donovan, no; Dempsey, yes.

For the first time since 2007, Landon Donovan started a U.S. game on the bench, less than 24 hours after he arrived in D.C. from his twin sister’s wedding in California.

On the other hand, Clint Dempsey, who attended his sister’s wedding in Texas, and arrived in D.C. at 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning, did get the starting nod for Sunday’s quarterfinal against Jamaica, which kicked off at 3:00 p.m.

Dempsey not only started and played the full 90, but was also arguably the Man of the Match, putting his imprint on the midfield, presenting a constant threat going forward, and scoring the goal that put the game away in the 80th minute. Afterward he said he wanted to play well “… to pay back the U.S. team for letting me go and not let the travel be an excuse [but] rather be motivation.”

Donovan came on in the 66th minute and turned in a steady performance.

Highlights here:

There was much talk about this being the best performance of the tournament for the U.S., and about how they’d regained their “swagger,” and now look capable of winning the tournament.

A few counterpoints:

• While we agree it was the Yanks’ best performance of Gold Cup 2011, that’s not saying a whole lot.

• It’s hard to believe, and we are having a hard time just typing it, but the U.S. nearly gave up another early goal. In the fourth minute, San Jose Earthquakes attacker Ryan Johnson received the ball at the far post, no one within yards of him.

He was so wide open, he looked blatantly offside—yet he wasn’t: Michael Bradley, slowly jogging out from the near post, kept Johnson on. Tim Howard made a kick save on Johnson and the rebound was somehow skied over the bar.

If either one of those clear chances goes in, the game takes on an entirely different cast.

• The red card to Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo), which helped seal the U.S. victory down the stretch, was completely unwarranted. Taylor hardly touched Jermaine Jones, as the replays clearly showed. The most amazing thing about the play was how Taylor accepted his fate without a single gesture of protest. Just walked right off. Strange—because he didn’t even commit a foul, much less a red-card offense.

The U.S. will play the first semifinal on Wednesday night (7:00 ET, Fox Soccer Channel), getting another shot at Panama, controversial winners over El Salvador (click here for you-are-there field-level highlights, sans TV commentators).

Mexico will meet Honduras in the second semi (10:00 ET, FSC).

For our recap of this past week’s MLS action, click here, and for a quick Father’s Day piece we did for MLS, see here.

Should Donovan and Dempsey Start Against Jamaica?

In case you hadn’t heard, U.S. midfielders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are in Texas and California, respectively, right now, attending their sisters’ weddings while the rest of the U.S. team is in Washington, D.C., preparing for Sunday’s Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamaica (3:00 ET, Fox Soccer Channel).

Both players are scheduled to travel Saturday night and be available for selection on Sunday.

Now, considering the pair’s status on the U.S. team (they’re the top two players), and the stakes of the game (win or go home), they probably will start the game.

But the question remains, should they start?

Would it reflect badly on the team, and on coach Bob Bradley’s authority, if they were to make the first XI after missing training and flying back the night before such a big game?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

Our first thought when we heard the news was Sure hope this doesn’t become a postgame talking point. That remains the main issue for us. If the U.S. stumbles against Jamaica, and Donovan and Dempsey don’t deliver, look for this story to blow up.

There are other factors as well: What message does this send to the rest of the U.S. team, and more importantly, what does it say to Jamaica? Is this bulletin-board for the Reggae Boyz, as in, The U.S.’s best two players think they can get off a plane, stiff legs and all, the night before playing us and still get the job done. We’ll show them.

Either way, this will be a tough match for the Yanks, as Jamaica is riding high, having won all three of their group games without conceding a goal.

The Reggae Boyz have plenty of experienced players, several of whom play in Norway’s top flight, and six who play in MLS—Donovan Ricketts (Los Angeles), Ryan Johnson (San Jose), Dane Richards (New York), Shavar Thomas (Sporting Kansas City), Dicoy Williams (Name Hall of Famer, Toronto), and Jermaine Taylor (Houston).

Jamaica’s roster might have included two more MLSers, Colorado’s Omar Cummings and Tyrone Marshall, but Cummings is hurt and Marshall decided to remain with the injury-plagued Rapids.

The most obvious quality of the Jamaican team is outstanding team speed, but this group, as Reggae Boyz veteran Robbie Earle told Extra Time Radio recently, plays a more sophisticated style, and will look to vary as well as dictate the tempo of Sunday’s game.

Containing the in-form Johnson (two goals in Gold Cup play) and the lightning-fast Richards will be two top priorities for the Yanks.