Gregg Berhalter’s USA squad, current leaders of the CONCACAF standings for World Cup 2022 qualification, will try to build upon their lead atop the Octogonal when they take on Jamaica in Kingstown on Tuesday evening.
Re-read the previous sentence and let it sink in for a minute.
After a qualification campaign that sputtered out of the gates with two disappointing draws against El Salvador and Canada, and also featured a flat loss in Panama that had alarm bells ringing, the team has nevertheless reached a position of strength at the halfway point of qualification.
There is still a lot of work to do, and realistically a tougher slate of away games in the back seven, however the team is brimming with confidence following an impressive, comprehensive 2-0 victory over Mexico on Friday. Little can be said (or written) about that game which hasn’t already been said, so we’ll take a cue from the team and look forward to the next contest: Jamaica.
As US team star Christian Pulisic stated in the press conference following the Mexico game, “We haven’t accomplished our ultimate goal yet. Jamaica is going to be a tough match, we know what they’re about. We’re going to get the scouting report, we’re going to prepare as best we can, and that’s all we can do now.”
With that in mind, what awaits this young squad on Tuesday evening in Independence Park?
Jamaica belong to the lower four-team grouping of the CONCACAF standings, each of which are likely a bit too far back from the upper four-team grouping to have realistic hopes of qualifying. Specifically, they are on six points after eight games, have won a grand total of one contest (over last-place Honduras), and are five points out of the fourth-place playoff spot.
Still, despite their overall middling record, the Reggae Boyz can be a tough nut to crack. They played erstwhile leaders Mexico toe-to-toe in the Azteca opener, only conceding an 89th-minute winner, and have drawn against both Canada (current third in the emerging CONCACAF pecking order) and Costa Rica.
Their last two, both on the road, have seen an uptick in form, first picking up two points in Honduras before drawing in El Salvador. Still, this still leaves them as more likely competing for the title of “best of the rest” rather than a ticket to Qatar in just over a year.
Berhalter has a full, even if not complete cadre at his disposal to take on their hosts, who they already defeated by a 2-0 margin in the last window. Of the 11 players who started for him on Friday, only Weston McKennie and Miles Robinson are unavailable, both through suspension.
While last-second addition James Sands could in theory cover for either, a more likely scenario would be the insertion of Berhalter favorite Kellyn Acosta into the midfield, and the highly talented Chris Richards in the defense. Should the coach decide to risk conceding robustness in the middle in the chase of offensive power, Gianluca Busio, who is excelling in his first season in Serie A at Venezia, could join Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah in the middle.
Berhalter gave a few hints on his general thinking about these choices, and the lineup in general, in his pre-game comments, while remaining coy about his exact plan, “We know we’re going to have to change two players, then we’ll see,” he stated, adding “We haven’t chosen a lineup yet.”
About the replacements for McKennie and Robinson, he laid out the options very clearly, stating “Either Mark McKenzie or Chris Richards will play at center back, and either Kellyn [Acosta], Gianluca [Busio] or Sebastian [Lletget] will play in midfield.”
Berhalter’s pre-game statements have also shown his intent to finally stick with Zack Steffen as the team’s current #1 over Matt Turner, elaborating “When you look at the choice of Zack to play in the Mexico game, you can infer that he’s ahead of Matt.”
He did, however, keep pressure on the Manchester City backup to continue performing, warning “It’s up to Zack to keep his form. We’re not hesitant to change goalkeepers, that’s not something we’re averse to,” closing with a definitive statement “Zack will start tomorrow.”
Christian Pulisic is of course still available, and will play a part after scoring the eventual winning goal in Cincinnati, however it is likely that this will come as a substitute rather than taking the place of either Tim Weah, Ricardo Pepi or Brenden Aaronson in the front line.
In fact, Berhalter tipped off his one-two punch strategy involving Aaronson and Pulisic after the game on Friday, explaining “Part of playing against Brendan Aaronson is that you have to match his workrate, and it’s really difficult for defenders to match what he can do time and time again. [Against Mexico] it had a cumulative effect on the defender. As Brendan started to tire, we thought it would be a good idea to bring Christian in.”
On the other side of the ball, Jamaica have a roster heavy on US- and UK-based players; nine play in either MLS or USL, while eight play in various levels of England and Scotland. Similar to the Americans, they are led by a former national team player of prominence. Theodore Whitmore was capped 120 times for the Reggae Boyz between 1993 and 2004, and was the hero of their single appearance in the World Cup in 1998, scoring both goals in their lone win over Japan.
Tuesday’s game will kick off relatively early, with the ball rolling at 5pm Eastern Time in Kingstown.