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USA seeks revenge with Jamaica test

FOX Soccer News: Preview of USA's World Cup qualifier against Jamaica.
FOX Soccer News: Preview of USA's World Cup qualifier against Jamaica.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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KINGSTON, JAMAICA

United States Soccer

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On Friday, the thirteenth day of the United States men’s national team’s summer camp, the Americans will finally get into the nitty-gritty of World Cup qualifying.

The USA arrived in Jamaica early, flying in on Tuesday, to avoid being overwhelmed by the circumstances like they were in Honduras, where they dropped their first qualifier of the hexagonal round 2-1 in February.

“We came a day earlier than usual to adjust to the temperatures, the humidity,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, pointing out that the difficulty in qualifying out of the CONCACAF region lay primarily in the disparate environments you face. “You’re on an island; you can’t compare no country with another country, no place with another place. Being here early, it can only help you.”

The USA are in the midst of an uneven run; a disheartening 4-2 friendly loss to Belgium; a heartening 4-3 win over Germany. In March, the USA won a hard-fought game over Costa Rica 1-0 in a Denver blizzard and gutted out a 0-0 draw in Mexico City, just their second-ever qualifying point on Mexican soil.

Now follows three games in a span of just 12 days. The Americans face Jamaica on Friday (live, 9:30 p.m. ET), Panama in Seattle and Honduras in Salt Lake City. By the end of this series, just four games will remain for them to consolidate their position among the top three teams of this group of six and qualify directly for the big dance in Brazil next summer (the fourth-placed team will play New Zealand in a home-and-away playoff).

Which makes it all the more acute that the USA avenge its loss here in the prior qualifying phase from last September. The 2-1 defeat was one of the lows of the Klinsmann era. “They were extremely physical, even brutal in certain moments,” recalls the German coach. “We gave away two cheap free kicks there and they converted them and other than that they never had a shot on goal and they won it. We want to correct that. It still sits in the stomach.”

This time around, the mood is different. Whereas pessimism had surrounded the team before the March qualifiers, fanned on by a damning Sporting News report in which several players attacked Klinsmann anonymously, spirits have been lifted by recent results.

“There was more pressure on us in March because we needed to get two good results and there was a lot of drama around things going on behind the scenes,” said captain Clint Dempsey, but the Americans delivered. “We feel more confidence and more togetherness. Anytime you have situations like that it can go one of two ways. But it helped us because I think it brought us closer.”

The friendlies against Belgium and Germany provided a rhythm. But there’s a realism about those results as well. “We wanted to make it as much the same feeling as a qualifier would,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “But you can’t really make it feel all the way like a qualifier because it’s not a make it or break it situation and those are the ones that count.”

“We have enough guys who have been here before,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “And friendlies are important in a lot of ways, but not to get too caught up in the result. When you walk off the field after beating Germany, there’s excitement, there’s pride. But there’s also enough common sense from everybody that it’s still a friendly and the real important games are the ones coming now.”

The USA’s raised confidence is born of the knowledge that they are better prepared now. They know what they’re facing – the hum of all those air horns, the heat, the humidity, the heavy air. And the National Stadium field promises to be less bumpy and hard on Friday than it was in September.

“We’ll be able to play a bit more,” said Zusi. “The last game was not the prettiest game ever. They’re a physical team and that’s what they like to do with people coming in here is impose their will. To be honest, we weren’t ready for that last time. They kind of kicked us around the pitch a bit. I think we’ll be ready for that and be able to cope with it better.”

And this time around, the Americans face a Jamaican team whose qualification campaign is very much in crisis. After losing 1-0 to Mexico here on Tuesday, the Reggae Boyz are dead last with just two points from four games. They will, as ever, be athletic and well organized and aggressive, but they’ll be under pressure to get a result.

“They have to do something really badly on Friday night, which maybe leads us into a huge opportunity,” said Klinsmann. “It’s always either-or. They might be more dangerous because they have their backs against the wall or they might be vulnerable [more quickly] if things don’t go their way.”

If the United States manages to drag out a win here, a slow start will have been turned into a very respectable record of 2-1-1 in spite of having played three out of their first four games on the road. Take the points against Panama and Honduras, and the USA can just about start booking its hotels in Brazil. “It’s a great opportunity,” said Dempsey. “You get on a run of form and get some good results, you can find a little separation [in the standings]. It’d be huge. You have to shoot for that.”

First, Jamaica awaits in the hysterical bedlam of “The Office,” as the stadium here is dubbed. But rise above the noise, and the USA will have their most difficult days of qualifying behind them.

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