Editor’s note: Per a press release from US Soccer posted after this preview was published, Brad Davis, Clarence Goodson, and Chris Wondolowski have been called up to the USMNT. The release notes, “Wondolowski replaces Eddie Johnson, who suffered a left groin strain during Wednesday’s training session.”
The U.S. resumes World Cup Qualifying on Friday (6:30 p.m., ESPN) with a trip to the 2014 Finals in Brazil already secured. That said, coach Jürgen Klinsmann has made it clear that the U.S. will be taking the game against Jamaica very seriously.
While Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley are both out injured, and Omar Gonzalez also had to pull out of the squad due to injury, the roster named by Klinsmann is a strong one. There are no debutants, and few, if any, players without multiple games’ experience in qualifying.
The message is clear: the U.S. wants to win.
A tale of two strikers
Jozy Altidore’s resurgence has hit a snag since his high-profile move to Sunderland in the English Premier League over the summer. The coach who brought him in, noted fascist and all-around crazy person Paolo Di Canio, is now gone, fired just six games into the new season, and Sunderland sit bottom of the EPL table, with Altidore yet to score a goal. It’s unclear whether Jozy was a victim of Di Canio’s “systematic destruction” of his self-esteem, or if his struggles are related to the usual settling-in period all players go through at new teams, or if his teammates aren’t good enough to provide him with chances. Regardless, the U.S.’s in-form striker from the spring and summer is no longer in form.
On the other end of the striking spectrum, though, is young Aron Jóhannsson. Taking over from Altidore as the main striker at AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie, Jóhannsson has been on a tear, scoring nine goals in 12 appearances so far for the club. His goals have been occasionally sensational, and have AZ mid-table in Holland.
In short, Jóhannsson is in a much better stint of form than Altidore. Will that result in a benching for Altidore, or will both players see the field at the same time? With Dempsey’s absence, the latter seems a distinct possibility, especially given how well the two players dovetailed for a short time versus Bosnia and Herzegovina in August. The time is ripe for Klinsmann to be experimenting in small ways with his lineup, to learn as much as he can about which attacking combinations work, prior to the World Cup itself.
Without Michael Bradley, and with Geoff Cameron likely to slot into Gonzalez’s place at center back, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones will partner at the base of midfield. Landon Donovan will also start somewhere. If we assume Altidore and Jóhannsson do also start, that leaves one spot open, which is likely to go to Graham Zusi. In that scenario, Zusi will play wide right, Altidore will lead the line, and Donovan will either play in the hole with Jóhannsson out wide (in a 4-3-3), or Donovan will play wide left with Jóhannsson as the second striker (4-4-2).
If Klinsmann is not yet ready to blood the young Icelandic-American, Eddie Johnson is an easy swap into the lineup in his place, or as an impact substitute. Mix Diskerud is the next option off the bench after Johnson.
Jamaica’s Qualifying campaign has been nothing short of disastrous, but thanks to the titanic struggles of Mexico, the Reggae Boyz have not yet been mathematically eliminated. If they can beat the U.S., and then Honduras in their final game, it’s still possible for them to secure the fourth place in the group to reach the play-in match against New Zealand.
However, it will be a tall order. Both the first- and second-choice keepers (Donovan Ricketts and Dwayne Miller) are unavailable through injury, and the team is missing five other players from its last game: strikers Marlon King, Luton Shelton and Jermaine Beckford, and midfielders Garath McLeary and Chris Humphrey. But playing in a World Cup is incredible motivation, and the Jamaican team is in must-win mode, while the U.S. has qualification wrapped up. Stranger things have happened.
Stranger things may have happened, but the U.S. is on an almighty roll right now, and is a much better team on paper than Jamaica, even when missing Bradley and Dempsey. Jozy Altidore may be struggling, but Landon Donovan and Aron Jóhannsson are not. The U.S will not approach this game lightly, and in front of a raucous home crowd in Kansas City, will have too much for Jamaica. The U.S. wins, 2–0.