Jamaica friendly, last chance for U.S. reserves to impress ahead of crucial qualifiers
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- With big changes to the U.S. lineup expected for Friday's match against Jamaica, the friendly at Finley Stadium represents one final chance for the American reserves to prove to coach Bruce Arena that they deserve to be on the roster for next month's huge World Cup qualifying games against Honduras and Panama.
"We've had a great month of training and a really good first game against Serbia [where] defensively we didn't give up much, so we're looking to do the same," said New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, who will start against the Reggae Boyz after sitting in favor of Nick Rimando in Sunday's scoreless tie.
With longtime U.S. backstop Tim Howard recovering from groin surgery and Arena planning to summon up to 30 players next month, a good showing could earn the 32-year-old Robles, who has made just one international appearance since making his debut in 2009, an immediate callback.
"As far as that situation goes, there's only so much I can control," Robles said. "What I'm concerned about is my own performance and my attitude."
Arena said during Thursday's prematch news conference that FC Dallas central defender Walker Zimmerman and Mexico-based left-back Jorge Villafana would also start against Jamaica. He also promised changes in the midfield, where Darlington Nagbe, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Dax McCarty and Chris Pontius are all vying for lineup spots. There could be a different look at forward, too.
Friday marks the rare U.S. men's match played on artificial turf; the last time the national team played on a plastic field was in Portland during the 2013 Gold Cup.
In a conversation with ESPNFC earlier Thursday, Arena indicated that the turf could play into his planning.
Striker Jozy Altidore suffered hamstring injuries on turf at New England's Gillette Stadium in each of the past two years, forcing him to miss 10 national team games, including the entire 2016 Copa America Centenario. If Arena decides playing Altidore is too risky, it could open the door for both Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris to start up top.
Still, to a man, the Americans played down the turf's impact.
"In this country, playing on artificial turf fields is all part of the exercise," Arena said. "I don't think it's the worst thing that we do a game at this time of year on an artificial turf field, knowing that sometimes fields around the country are not in the best of shape. You're very limited in your markets. You can go to California and probably Arizona and that's about it in the month of January. The field, for an artificial field, is good."
"It's the same for Jamaica, so it's not something we're going to whine about," said Altidore, who will be honored before the game after winning his 100th cap this past Sunday against Serbia. "We're not going to make any issues with the playing surface."
Meantime, U.S. captain Michael Bradley is looking forward to playing in front of another enthusiastic home crowd. After performing in sparsely attended matches at the StubHub Center in the Los Angeles area in recent years, Sunday's game in San Diego drew more than 20,000 fans. More than 16,000 tickets had been sold for the Jamaica match as of Thursday.
"It had become pretty clear that we had worn out our welcome playing games in January at StubHub Center," Bradley said of the LA Galaxy's home stadium in Carson, California. "Last year we played two games there that maybe had a total of 8,000 people. Maybe.
"It's always that balance between field and crowd and atmosphere and competitive advantage," Bradley continued. "I think it's important to get to places like Chattanooga that have shown that they support their team in a big way. You see right away what it means to the people here."
Jamaica didn't qualify for the final "Hexagonal" round of qualifying, but that's not to say they're any pushover. The last time these teams faced each other, the Reggae Boyz beat the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2015 Gold Cup. Four of the past five meetings have been decided by one goal, with Jamaica winning twice.
"I was surprised they didn't advance into the Hex this time around," Arena said of Jamaica, which features six MLS players on its current roster. "They certainly have a talented group."
They're beatable, though, and after failing to find the net in their first match of 2017, the home team would like to send their fans home with a win.
"Ultimately that's what it's all about," McCarty said. "We want to build that momentum going into these massive qualifiers."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.