U.S. wings it in Caribbean
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- It was almost a very bad day at The Office.
For the bulk of the 89 minutes that the U.S. National Team went without a goal against an inspired Jamaican side, chances were created -- some of the golden opportunity nature -- but none were converted. And it nearly put the Americans behind the proverbial 8-ball to start the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying at National Stadium on Wednesday night.
Fortunately for the U.S., second-half substitute Brian Ching converted on a deft pass inside the box from San Jose Earthquakes teammate Landon Donovan in the 89th minute to give the U.S. a 1-1 tie on the road. Had the Yanks not scored, it would have been a case of hard-luck for a match that manager Bruce Arena felt his side carried.
"For the first 25 minutes Jamaica played very well, as we expected them to do at home," said Arena. "After that, I thought we had the game."
Outside of a few defensive lapses, Arena is correct. Despite some scattered and disjointed play at times, the U.S. was able to create several goal-scoring opportunities - many of which came on counterattacks after long build-ups by a much-improved Jamaican side.
Had Ching not come through when he did, the Americans would have left the Caribbean feeling a bit snakebitten. Instead, they feel as though they got a justified result.
"We kept believing until the end," said captain Claudio Reyna. "We played well the whole game. We created chances on the road against a very difficult team in a very difficult environment."
Indeed. However, the team's lack of finishing nearly gave Jamaica a result that would've been among the island nation's biggest in its soccer history. Had the Reggae Boyz played as well as they did during the first 35-40 minutes or so of the match, the result might never have been in doubt.
During much of that first half, Jamaica moved the ball more effectively than the Americans, and looked as smooth and comfortable at home as ever.
Balls were played through attacking midfielders Andy Williams and captain Theodore Whitmore before being played wide to outside backs Ricardo Gardner and Fabian Davis. At that point, Jamaica's 4-2-2-2 system with a box midfield and no outside midfielders was working best against the U.S.
It was only the solid marking of Eddie Pope on Damani Ralph and Frankie Hejduk on Marlon King, who hung out most of the game on the left side as a winger, that prevented the Reggae Boyz from getting in on Kasey Keller.
While the U.S. had a hard time connecting on passes and combining in the early part of the half, the play of Jamaica's back four of Gardner, Ian Goodison, Claude Davis, and Davis had more to do with it than anything.
They clogged passing lanes, won several 50-50 battles in the air, and effectively marked both Landon Donovan and Brian McBride. The U.S. duo looked for each other from the start, but were unable to combine with much success during that first half.
"Our forwards struggled early in the game to hold the ball," said Arena. "I don't think we were smart, and not putting enough balls behind them early to play in that end of the field."
Communication might have been an issue being that the game was played in front of 35,000-plus screaming Jamaicans in a standing-room early stadium, and certainly played a factor during a build-up that served as the best chance the Americans had in the first half.
It came in the 34th minute when Donovan sent Reyna through on the left side with a well-timed ball behind the Jamaican defense.
Once the U.S. captain got into the box, he slid it across to McBride at the penalty spot. Had the Fulham striker dummied the ball and allowed it to run its course without a touch, the on-running Donovan would have had a clear shot on goal from inside the 18-yard box. But when McBride slightly flicked on the ball to his strike partner, it slowed the sequence just enough leaving Donovan without a play on the ball.
"I think we got a little bit too cute on a couple of chances," remarked Arena.
Seven minutes later, the Americans nearly struck on a quick counterattack off a Jamaican corner kick.
Blazing down the left side of the field, Donovan looked up and saw a streaking Stewart angling his run towards the box without a defender marking him.
Unfortunately for the U.S., Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts perfectly read the play, pouncing off his line as soon as the ball was sent across the box. Just before Stewart could get to the ball, Ricketts outstretched his entire 6-foot frame and snared the pass just beyond the 12-yard marker. If he hadn't acted so quickly and aggressively, it would have been an easy finish for a veteran goal scorer like Stewart.
It appeared as though it just wasn't going to be the Americans' night when Ching missed a sitter from six yards out in the 63rd minute when Greg Vanney served in a beautiful ball to the back post, which found the Earthquakes' striker all alone with an entire goal to aim at.
When his header sailed wide to the right, the stadium only grew louder, with fans smelling victory for the first time in a series that has spanned 14 games over 16 years. In fact, the last three times a World Cup qualifier had been played between these two sides in The Office, the score lines were the same - 0-0 ties.
The previous three matches at The Office were played on scorching Sunday afternoons. Playing in the early evening after the 90-degree temperatures had cooled off with aid from strong winds, the U.S. appeared much more comfortable on the field than in the past. But what didn't help was the width of the field, which U.S. officials measured at being 70 yards, making it seem much like Spartan Stadium in San Jose.
Jamaica made best use of the width early on, and was compact when defending. But as the game developed, the Americans were able to open up the field by attacking down the flanks with Vanney and Hejduk from their outside back positions, as well as from midfielders DaMarcus Beasley, Cobi Jones and Eddie Lewis. Part of that had to do with the fact that the Jamaicans seemed to run out of gas.
"I thought we got a little tired at the end," said midfielder Andy Williams, who played as an attacking midfielder just as he does for the Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer. "We gave Cobi a little too much room on that cross."
Not having outside midfielders didn't help.
From the start, that strategy was fine, as it's something the U.S. often employs and is common among many sides around Central and South America.
But after gaining the lead in the 49th minute, new manager Sebastio Lazaroni should have made an adjustment to deal with the flank play of the Americans, particularly on the left side. That's where Beasley, Lewis and Vanney were having much success, whether it was getting serves in or causing Jamaica's defenders to foul them in dangerous parts of the field.
The play of Beasley, specifically, started to spread out the Reggae Boyz, and forced them to foul him rather than allow him to turn and attack them on the run.
"Beasley's quickness was a factor," said Arena. "It was a typical Beasley game, as he was there (going strong) for over 90 minutes."
Offensively, Jamaica started taking wild shots once they had the lead, which was not the case in the first half. Such giveaways allowed the U.S. to have much more possession and time to create quality chances in the second half. The moves Arena made all ended up working out, as well.
Obviously, the insertion of Ching ended up resulting in the goal. Lewis was strong on the left flank, as well, allowing Beasley to move over to the middle of the park.
And then there was the addition of a three-time World Cup veteran like Cobi Jones that ended up paying off in the end, as the 34-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder brought composure and experience to the field when he entered the match in the 68th minute.
That's exactly what Arena envisioned he would add when he decided to call him into the squad after Chris Klein tore his ACL over the weekend.
"Cobi is still a good player," said Arena, noting that Klein was pegged to get the start as the right midfielder before his injury, which would have had Earnie Stewart come in off the bench rather than start as he did on Wednesday. "We still want to monitor the transition. Obviously, the goal is to qualify. If you don't qualify, the results don't mean crap. Cobi and Earnie are guys who can help us in this stage, there's no question about.
"Can they help us in 2006? I don't know. Hopefully we get there. I know they can make us better to help us try to get there."
In the end, the moves paid big dividends, and now has the U.S. in a solid position with one point after playing against the other top team in Group 1 with easier matchups down the road against El Salvador and Panama.
"Overall, I think it was a really, really good performance by our team on the road against a team that's going to be fighting to get into the World Cup," said Arena.
"That's a good result."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org