U.S. Soccer aims to extend firsts trend at Jamaica
Beating Italy was a breakthrough moment. Winning at Mexico ended nearly a century of frustration.
And now the U.S. men's national team will look for another first one that, on some level, might be more significant than either of those memorable victories from this year.
The Americans play a 2014 World Cup qualifying match at Jamaica on Friday night, with a chance to take complete control of the Group A standings. It's the start of a home-and-home series with the Jamaicans, the second leg on Sept. 11 at Columbus, Ohio.
But the start of the series at National Stadium in Kingston, at least from the U.S. perspective, is vital.
"You want to have a positive result because you carry that through to the next game," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "Nobody should even think for a second about the home game. Everybody has to focus only on the game in Kingston and once that game is over we can focus on the home game. It's tricky, but it's tricky for both sides."
The U.S. and Jamaica are both 1-0-1 for four points in Group A qualifying so far, the Americans sitting atop the standings because of a better goal differential. A win is worth three points in the group, meaning if there's a U.S.-Jamaica victor, that team would be assured of outright possession of first place at the midway point of this qualifying round.
No American team has ever lost to Jamaica, with 10 wins and eight ties in 18 previous meetings. Of those, four have been World Cup qualifiers in Jamaica, all of which have ended as draws.
"It's going to be difficult," U.S. forward Clint Dempsey said. "The fans are going to be really up for the game, therefore the players are going to be really up for the game. So it's going to be a challenge. You have to make sure we go out and take care of business. I'm looking forward to these games and trying to qualify for the World Cup because that's the goal. Everybody wants to do something special in their lifetime. World Cup is certainly that."
The Americans will be without national team regulars Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley for the game, both of whom have injuries that kept Klinsmann from summoning them to camp for these matchups with Jamaica.
The U.S. won at Italy in February on a goal from Dempsey, and is coming off a win last month at Mexico where the Americans had been 0-23-1 over a 75-year span.
While obviously significant, those results came in exhibitions, matches that mean nothing in the chase to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
"It gives us a greater sense of relief," U.S. forward Herculez Gomez said. "We always believed in ourselves, but once it starts getting a little more tangible for ourselves, you see the fruits of your labor and you can definitely try doing more. That sense of belief goes a long way."
Guatemala has one point in the Group A standings, as does Antigua and Barbuda. Those teams meet Friday night as well. Should they tie, the Group A leader could be as much as five points clear of the third-place team in the standings by night's end, and well on their way to the next round of qualifying.
A loss at Jamaica could put the Americans in a slippery position. With only four teams in a group, there's little room for error.
"We should be confident," Klinsmann said. "We did well in Mexico. I think the team is growing. The chemistry is really positive. It's good. They all want to do well. They want to prove that we can get things done the right way. The goal is to beat them in Jamaica."
Make no mistake, it's a big match for the Jamaicans as well, evidenced by having Olympic champion sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce featured prominently in advertising efforts for the game.
"Come out in numbers," she urged Jamaicans.
The Americans know the scene should be electric.
"We need to stay organized and try to put the game on our terms," U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra said. "We want to get three points out of both of these games and put ourselves in a good position, on top of the group."
Bocanegra said a win in Jamaica would just serve as more proof of where U.S. soccer is heading, especially as it keeps evolving under Klinsmann.
"We've continuously just gotten better and better," Bocanegra said. "It's nice. We're being able to raise our standards and we're going in the right direction. ... National team's getting better, MLS is getting better, and it's translating to the bigger picture on the global stage for us. So yeah, we're definitely confident. But we know it's going to be a very tough game down there."
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