Independence Park doesn't sound like a particularly intimidating venue. For CONCACAF nerds, it sounds like a generic name for any Caribbean country's home ground. However, in this case USA fans know Jamaica's home ground by a nickname that says everything: The Office. It's not called that because Jim is going to pull a delightful prank on Dwight; rather, it's because that's where Jamaica goes to work.
Over the years, that work has been effective for the Reggae Boyz. The USMNT has never won in Kingston, even in qualifying cycles where Jamaica was nowhere near as strong as today (note: Jamaica's one and only World Cup appearance was in 1998). While the history isn't as daunting as a trip to the Azteca - lots of road draws, which still count as a successful trip in CONCACAF - the fact is that more than most teams, Jamaica is at their best at home.
For the United States, our last game against Jamaica was actually a pair over a four-day period last year in early September. While the Yanks can take comfort in winning the last game in the series (1-0 in Columbus), Jamaica will still see this as a winnable game based on the road game that opened up last year's informal home-and-home series. On that day, the Reggae Boyz recovered from a Clint Dempsey goal all of 33 seconds into the match to win 2-1 thanks to free kick goals by both Rodolph Austin and the country's all-time leading scorer Luton Shelton.
Our last visit to The Office wasn't just bad because we lost. Aside from the early sucker punch, the USMNT attack was dire. Almost every player seemed to be thinking slowly, and Juergen Klinsmann's tactics broke down due to a lack of any attacking midfield presence (wide or central). Theodore Whitmore, who has over 100 caps for Jamaica from his playing days, dictated the tempo and style of the game while making sure his own star players were in positions to do their best while simultaneously stranding the best American attackers.
Since that high water mark, though, things haven't gone that well for Jamaica. Despite a fruitful public push to get European-raised players with Jamaican parent(s) to suit up in yellow, black, and green, the Reggae Boyz barely escaped the previous round of CONCACAF qualifying. Until Dane Richards scored in the 77th (and later 88th) minute against Antigua & Barbuda, Guatemala actually sat ahead of Jamaica on the goals scored tiebreaker and would have gone through instead.
In this round, it's been more of the same. Despite playing one more game than everyone but Mexico, they sit dead last in the Hexagonal with just one goal scored. In fact, since beating the US at The Office, the Jamaicans are 1W-2D-4L in qualifying, with their only win coming at home against Antigua & Barbuda. Their celebrated 0-0 draw at the Azteca was great, but they wasted the momentum by only notching a 1-1 draw in their next match (home vs. Panama).
In other words, the pressure is on. Anything but a win would leave Jamaica in last place, having played an extra game, and with only two home games left. The Reggae Boyz have historically had an awful time on the road, and failure to beat the USMNT tonight would essentially leave them needing to win at least once (and probably twice) away along with winning their remaining home fixtures. "Must win" is the cliche you're looking for.
Still, Whitmore can take some faith in the fact that he once again managed to force a CONCACAF giant into a very uncomfortable game and got the big stars for El Tri to look very ordinary. The Jamaican gameplan was not the same for Mexico as it was for the US, and a lot of the credit falls to an astute plan that included forcing Mexico to play wide and direct rather than looking to combine. Whatever weaknesses the USMNT has right now - looking at you, back four - Whitmore is ready to reveal them.
In terms of formation, Jamaica will play some variation of a 451. Against Mexico, they played the first half hour in a 4411, but then dropped destroyer Marvin Elliott and #10 Jermaine Hue into deeper roles. The resulting 4141 was what the Reggae Boyz used against the US last September, but this time it was a necessary adjustment after Whitmore's initial tactical gambit stopped working (essentially, using Hue and Ryan Johnson as a two-layered blanket to cut off the Mexican engine room from easy outlet passes from defenders).
The 4411 struck me as a one-off for Mexico, as Whitmore has mostly gone 4141 in qualifying. Here's how it will probably look tonight:
The main issues are in the midfield, as there aren't many other choices in the Reggae Boyz squad elsewhere. Whitmore's squad only includes six defenders, meaning only Adrian Mariappa remains from our last visit to Kingston. Houston's Jermaine Taylor is out injured, as is Watford right back Nyron Nosworthy (though for Jamaica, he's a center back) and Norway-based Demar Phillips.
That means starting roles for Alvas - that's without an I, so save the drinkin' and revenge - Powell on the right, new recruit Daniel Gordon in the middle, and O'Brian Woodbine on the left. The fullbacks should be a focus for the USMNT. Powell is just 18 years old and has been a professional for just a year and a half with Portmore United (who just barely missed out on a CCL spot if you're interested). While he survived the toughest possible CONCACAF debut in lining up against Mexican left winger Andres Guardado, that had a lot more to do with Guardado's inexplicably poor performance and Mexico's inability to feed him the ball in stride more than anything else. 1v1, Powell can be beaten, and he can also be lulled into ball-watching when quick combinations involve his mark. It was no coincidence that Mexico's goal was manufactured on his side.
On the other side, Woodbine is a strong 1v1 defender with excellent pace, but he is suspect positionally. As the more attacking fullback of the pair, Woodbine more or less has to get forward to help the midfield from becoming predictable, which in turn reveals his issues with timing those runs. If Graham Zusi gets the start as expected, it will be an interesting battle between the Sporting Kansas City man's savvy and skill against Woodbine's raw pace.
Gordon made his international debut against Mexico alongside Mariappa, but he's not as lacking in experience as Powell or (to a lesser extent) Woodbine. The center back is of English and Jamaican descent, but was born and raised in Germany and came up through the youth programs of Borussia Dortmund and VfL Bochum. He actually collected a handful of appearances with Dortmund's first teama few years ago, but has since spent most of his time playing in the 2.Bundesliga and is coming off a season starting for 3.Liga champions Karlsruher SC. At 6'4" and with reasonable speed and agility for a center back. Gordon will be the rare CONCACAF player that's as big or bigger than the largest American player. Still, the seam between he and Powell seems like it will be more vulnerable than the corresponding left-sided channel between Mariappa and Woodbine.
The question marks in the midfield come down to whether the 34 year old Hue is up for two huge games in short order (or if Whitmore would prefer a more energetic central midfield regardless of Hue's freshness). If Hue is dropped to the bench, Je-Vaughn Watson of FC Dallas seems more likely to move into the middle than Keammar Daley, who came on for Austin late against Mexico. Damion Williams is also an option centrally, but he'd be a bit redundant playing with Elliott.
If Watson is moved inside, his right midfield spot could go to Jermaine Johnson (who was suspended against Mexico), or Whitmore could move Garath McCleary - one of Jamaica's most recent English-born recruits - out to the right and use Darren Mattocks of the Vancouver Whitecaps wide on the left. That's what Jamaica went with after a 63rd minute double sub designed to add some attacking punch, and given the fact that they've scored just once in the Hex, we could see that from the start. A final, but less likely, solution would be to play Jermaine Beckford up top and use Ryan Johnson as a winger, which we've seen him play on and off throughout his MLS career.
In the early going, Jamaica is likely to stay cautious. Whitmore is keenly aware that his squad is more prone than most to riding waves of emotion, and that cuts both ways. A good start will get the Reggae Boyz confident in their ability to play the US even, while their reaction to Mexico's goal early in the second half on Tuesday was to get frustrated and lose their way in terms of tempo. Perhaps Mexico's greatest tactical victory was when Whitmore removed Austin in an acknowledgement that the game has lost all rhythm. Keammar Daley came on essentially to join Hue in lumping long balls into the box for Beckford, Mattocks, and McCleary to try and win.
It's crucial for the Yanks to be the more composed team throughout, and to stick with the things we do well. Of course, our last trip to Jamaica saw all that go out the window when we couldn't execute anything resembling smart or skillful soccer, so obviously we have to get that side of things right as well. Nevertheless, it's important to keep Jamaica from feeling too confident, because they benefit from that more than most teams do.
I've brought up Austin several times, and it's for a reason: He's the best player Jamaica has. However, their reliance on him can be a crutch, because the Reggae Boyz can't keep a rhythm without Austin as the bandleader. If Klinsmann opts for a 4231 again, the central midfield trio of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones will need to compress Austin's space and leave him with no forward options. Deep-lying playmakers are fun to watch, but if they're effectively denied space they end up having to play safe, and that disrupts the offense. Letting Austin play would be a huge mistake, especially since the other central options lack either the skill (Elliott), the patience to not look for killer balls every time (Hue), or the wherewithal to be the focus of the team (Watson).
High pressure will also work against Elliott, who looked distinctly uncomfortable on the ball every time Mexico pressured him. While Elliott is positionally sound in defense and embraces his role as a destroyer who shouldn't linger on the ball, he struggled at times to get himself into spots where he could quickly move the ball once Jamaica had it. Rather than asking one person to hassle Elliott at all times, Klinsmann needs to make clear that this is a group effort. Mexico had several instances where Elliott turned away from the first wave of pressure only to spin towards another approaching player in green.
Anyone who watches MLS knows that Ryan Johnson will run himself into the ground up front, both in pressuring defenders and in trying to hold the ball up to allow the midfield to join him in the attack. Johnson's energy and physical strength are often matched up with good runs off the ball (if Johnson were a better finisher, he'd have made some MLS club millions years ago). Still, the gap between Jamaica's lone striker and their midfield can be their undoing going forward, especially if opposing defenders are anticipating and defending on their toes rather than on their heels. If the American back four can read Jamaica's intentions, Johnson is going to spend a lot of time chasing after lost causes rather than posting up with his foot on the ball.
It's also important for the US to avoid giving up set pieces. Austin already scored direct from one against us, and their corner kicks against Mexico were always their best threat. The Reggae Boyz have size and the right mentality to win aerial battles, and the delivery (often an inswinger, with Austin taking one side and Hue the other) was good enough that Mexico had several loose balls and diving clearances to make as things got dicey. Jamaica's only goal in the Hex came from a header by Elliott on a corner kick.
Summing up, trips to The Office are never easy. That said, it took an abysmal performance and a lack of several key players (Bradley, for example) for the USMNT to lose to Jamaica at the time of their high water mark in this cycle. Jamaica deserves plenty of respect, but at the same time the only player for the home side that could theoretically make the road bench tomorrow would be Austin. If the Yanks can take advantage of the gaps in skill and soccer IQ that should be all over the field, we should be able to force Jamaica to play this game without the confidence that they so desperately rely on.
We may not see Jamaica's best soccer, but we will probably see their most desperate performance. Jamaica is up against the wall right now, and it's always tough to play a team in that spot. If the US defense is tight - think 0-0 at Azteca, not 4-2 vs. Belgium - and the central midfield exerts the control that you'd expect looking at the teams on paper, this is a good opportunity to take advantage of an opponent lacking confidence.