U.S., Jamaica wait to tip hands
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Twenty-four hours before the U.S. National Team takes on the Jamaicans in their first CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal round match, and the Americans were nowhere to be found.
Oh, Bruce Arena and his side eventually got here, but it wasn't until later on Tuesday evening. It's part of the latest "get in and get out" philosophy the National Team seems to have employed as of late.
The question on most people's minds the past few days hasn't been when the Yanks would get here, it was who will be here.
That sort of confusion was created since U.S. Soccer has not released an official roster for this match. Not naming a roster to either the media covering this match or to the world via the ussoccer.com website is Bruce Arena's prerogative, yet it is unusual for a group of 22 or 20 or even 18 players not to be released.
Call it a bit of gamesmanship, too, knowing full well that the side his team faces on Wednesday will be coached by Brazilian Sebastian Lazaroni, who will be making his debut as National Team manager.
Fortunately, the shroud of secrecy is starting to lift, as the following roster of 20 players are here for the Americans:
Goalkeepers: Kasey Keller and Jonny Walker.
Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Cory Gibbs, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Pope and Greg Vanney.
Midfielders: Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Gaven, Cobi Jones, Eddie Lewis, Claudio Reyna, Earnie Stewart and Kerry Zavagnin.
Forwards: Brian Ching, Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson and Brian McBride.
Originally, Chris Klein of the Kansas City Wizards was called in to play in this match, but unfortunately he tore his ACL on Saturday when the Wizards lost to San Jose 2-0. Jones, who hasn't been a regular with the National Team since playing in the 2002 World Cup, got the call once Klein went down.
Obviously, this was a call for an experienced player who can handle playing in a tough environment like the one that the National Team will face, as always, in National Stadium.
With 160 caps, the 34-year-old midfielder has wore a U.S. jersey more than any men's player, and has shown he can handle the type of heat that is expected -- even though the kickoff is at 6 p.m. local time -- to play a role in the match.
"We felt it was important to bring an experienced group, understanding the difficulties of having to deal with the travel and the short preparation time," said Arena upon arriving in Jamaica of his roster that features eight European-based players. "This group knows each other very well, and will be prepared to get on the field and get a result."
Stewart, a veteran of three World Cups, has been through the rigors of qualifying before and will be counted on to provide a veteran presence throughout this semifinal round, if not into 2005, despite being 35 years old.
"It's important that we start qualifying off on the right foot," said Stewart in the team's hotel on Tuesday evening. "Jamaica is always a difficult place to play and their team gets stronger every year."
One player who wouldn't understand that or fit into the mold of experienced international is Eddie Johnson, who was a surprising selection. The 20-year-old striker has been playing well as of late for the Dallas Burn, and gives Arena a jolt of speed off the bench. If he is called upon, this would be the U-20 and U-23 National Team star's first cap with the senior team. Had Conor Casey (FSV Mainz) been completely healthy in recovering from a sprain in his knee from the first U.S.-Grenada, he probably would have received the call instead.
This will be the second call-in for Gaven, the 17-year-old midfielder for the MetroStars, but he will likely not be named to the 18-player roster. Instead, this trip will serve as a taste of the heated cauldron that is World Cup qualifying.
The lineup that Arena is likely going to play with looks like this:
Keller in the goal; Vanney at left back; Pope and Bocanegra in the middle; Hejduk at right back. In the midfield, it'll be Stewart on the right, and Beasley on the left, with Reyna and Armas in their usual central midfielder partnership. Up top, it'll be Donovan and McBride.
Even though Lazaroni wasn't privy to a U.S. lineup, he knows full well who the key figures will be on Wednesday evening.
"(Claudio) Reyna is the brains of the team," said Lazaroni after Tuesday afternoon's training session. "It's a team that has been together for a long time, and they have a good base."
Lazaroni also mentioned the creativeness of Beasley, as well as the defending of Pope and Bocanegra when asked what stands out about the play of the Americans.
To combat that, he said his side will have to defend with all of its players, as well as attack with all of its players - in true Brazilian style. He will not change the 4-4-2 system that Technical Director Carl Brown has had in place since he's only been with the team for three training sessions in total over a two-day span starting on Monday.
"I will try and continue what has been done before, and give us continuity," said Lazaroni. "Nowadays, coaches get less and less time with the players. In my case, I had two days, so I had to do as much as you can in two days."
Though he would not reveal his lineup, Lazaroni joked that "the best players will be playing." If that's the case, with also taking into account how his team trained on Tuesday, Jamaica's lineup will look like this:
Donovan Ricketts in the goal; Ricardo Gardner at left back; Claude Davis and Ian Goodison as central defenders; Fabian Davis at right back. The midfield will see Tyrone Marshall of the L.A. Galaxy, Theodore Whitmore, Micah Hyde, and Chicago Fire standout Andy Williams in the attacking role. The two strikers will be Damani Ralph from the Chicago Fire along with Nottingham Forest striker Marlon King, who has scored four goals in his first five matches for the Reggae Boyz.
If the Jamaicans are to get a result, they'll need strong goaltending from Ricketts, who has been bothered recently by back pains, as well as dangerous runs up top by Ralph and King. They'll also have to feed off the emotion that is always present at stadium Jamaicans have dubbed "The Office."
"It'll be a very tough game," said Lazaroni. "We have to know where we are playing, know the situation, and know how to position ourselves."
Getting a point at home will be paramount for the Jamaican side, as the U.S. is the strongest opponent they will face in Group 1.
"We have strong enthusiasm from our players," he said. "They want to start something for Jamaica."
"It's time for us to make some noise to open qualification," said Williams, who appears to be the player taking most of Jamaica's free kicks at the moment. "For so long it's always been Mexico, Costa Rica and the U.S. in CONCACAF, but now it's time for us to show what we can do."
Beating the U.S., no matter if it's at home or on the road, would do that.
At the same time, this American side wants as little drama as possible during this round of qualifying, so they do not go into the final match against Jamaica in November needing a result as it did four years ago against Barbados.
"We came here," said Stewart, "with the mindset of getting a result."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org