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USA qualifier vs Jamaica no easy task

Catch Clint Dempsey's chat regarding his switch to Tottenham, his fitness and more.
Catch Clint Dempsey's chat regarding his switch to Tottenham, his fitness and more.
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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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In soccer, injuries and an occasional dearth of playing time are an inherent part of the business and unremarkable in and of themselves. But when several of your players are so afflicted at the same time, they can easily conspire to create a crisis. The makings of one faces the US Men’s National Team as it readies itself for its steepest hurdle yet in its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

When the United States plays Jamaica in its raucous National Stadium in Kingston — deceivingly nicknamed “The Office” — on Friday, it will have to make do without injured midfield pillar Michael Bradley and offensive dynamo Landon Donovan.

Meanwhile, its most accomplished player, forward Clint Dempsey, will show up underprepared. He has yet to play a competitive game this season after the drawn-out transfer saga that eventually took him from Fulham to Tottenham. Although Dempsey stayed in shape by training individually with Fulham’s conditioning coach, his match fitness will be nonexistent, making it unlikely that he can play anywhere close to 90 minutes in this game or in the rematch with Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday.

“I have a good base level of fitness,” Dempsey told FOX Soccer. “But you can’t replicate what it is to get on the field and train and play in these games.”

Captain and central defender Carlos Bocanegra recently left Glasgow Rangers for Racing Santander, meaning his only appearances this season came in the weak Scottish fourth tier, courtesy of Rangers’ bankruptcy and forced demotion. His presumed deputy, Oguchi Onyewu, wasn’t called up at all. He, too, made a move to Spain on last Friday’s transfer deadline day, leaving Sporting Lisbon on loan for Malaga, and has yet to play this season.

WC CONCACAF FIXT/RES

 
Friday, September 7
Cuba vs Honduras
Canada vs Panama
Jamaica vs USA
El Salvador vs Guyana
Guatemala vs Antigua & Barbuda
Costa Rica vs Mexico

Consequently, of seven core US players, only goalkeeper Tim Howard and right back Steve Cherundolo will show up healthy and fully fit.

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, born without the negativity gene, downplayed the issue.

“There will never be a game where you have everybody 100 percent on board,” Klinsmann said during a conference call on Sunday. “You always have to deal with injuries and some players not being in form. You just take it the way it is.”

Klinsmann conceded that he might have no choice but to field Dempsey, provided that “he’s really in a good physical condition and feeling fine,” because Jamaica is easily the strongest US opponent in its four-team group.

The Jamaicans have improved rapidly under the steady hand of Theodore Whitmore. Athletic and dynamic, they usually play a fluid 3-5-2 system and will seek to maximize their immense speed by sending through balls through the lead-footed US back line.

“Jamaica, having watched them several times, is a very good team,” Klinsmann said. “They have tremendous physical qualities, they have a lot of speed in there, they’re dangerous in transition.”

Because eight players on Jamaica’s roster play in Major League Soccer — compared to five in the US squad — they will be very familiar with their opponents. And their fans will make for a daunting atmosphere.

“They say when they come here, they smell marijuana,” Vancouver Whitecaps winger and Jamaican international Dane Richards quipped to Tropigol.com. “We get them high and then we try to beat them.”

On Aug. 18, 2004, the last time the US played a World Cup qualifier in Kingston, the sides drew 1-1. Their most recent encounter came in the quarterfinals of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup in Washington, DC. The US outplayed the Reggae Boyz 2-0 by pinning back their marauding wings and taking advantage of the space behind the midfield. But controlling the ball this time around might prove difficult with a semi-fit Dempsey and without Bradley and Donovan.

There lurks, in short, real danger in this game and the next.

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The US labored past Antigua and Barbuda for a 3-1 win in its qualifying opener on June 8. But having spilled two points away to Guatemala on June 12 by conceding an 83rd-minute equalizer, the US doesn’t have the margin of error it would like ahead of its two games with Jamaica. Just two of four teams will advance from the third qualifying phase — after playing a home-and-away round robin — and enter the fourth stage, the so-called hexagonal. Guatemala, which currently has one point, should take six more from Antigua and Barbuda over its next two games, taking it to seven. Should Jamaica, even with the US on four points, get the better of this series, the Yanks potentially could be on the outside looking in with two games remaining.

“The challenge is for both sides the same thing, you want to have a good first game and carry that into the next game,” Klinsmann said. “Nobody should think even for one second about the home game at the moment.”

In 18 games, the US never has lost to Jamaica — going 10-0-8 with a 31-10 scoring advantage. But whether high or not, the Americans could get beaten on Friday.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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