Jamaica men’s national team

Costa Rica plan Mexico upset, Honduras host Jamaica

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The US national team are playing a key World Cup qualifier against Panama in Seattle tonight, you probably knew that.

But elsewhere in CONCACAF qualifying, two huge games kick off prior to the USMNT this evening.

With the standings so tight and all three automatic World Cup spots wide open, these next round of games will prove pivotal in deciding who takes charge of the Hex.

In the Azteca at 8pm ET Mexico host Costa Rica, with Los Ticos aiming for a huge upset to rival the 2001 win in Mexico City. El Tri are struggling along. They’re joint top of the Hex but have played one more game than the US and Costa Rica, and Jose Manuel de la Torre could be out of a job soon if he doesn’t couple results with impressive displays. With the Confederations Cup coming up next week, the Mexicans have to get their act together, quickly.

Mexico have conceded just twice in their five World Cup qualifiers so far, but scoring has been their main problem. With just three goals to their name and after three shutouts, El Tri must up the offense against Costa Rica in the Azteca this evening.

While in Honduras at 9pm ET, the home side will be desperate to record a win against bottom side Jamaica. A demoralizing 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Friday has seen Honduras drop back in the standings, meaning three points against the Reggae Boyz is vital ahead of tough road trips to the US and Mexico.

Lineup changes are planned as Honduras aim to mix things up, will that do the trick tonight against Jamaica? A draw would be a good result for the USMNT, or maybe even a Jamaica win.

(More: Confident United States expecting victory against Panama)

But with just five points separating top from bottom, a win for Jamaica would complicate things further.

I pose you this question, is there a more competitive World Cup qualifying region on the planet? I doubt it.

There’s no room for error and with the margins between winning and losing in CONCACAF so slim, teams are extremely reluctant to go gun-ho for the win. Hence the incredible amount of draws so far.

But by the end of this evening we should have a better idea who will qualify from CONCACAF for World Cup 2014…then again, probably not.

(More: US lineup prediction vs. Panama)

United States face desperate Jamaica in tonight’s huge World Cup qualifier

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The friendlies are over, the time to talk has gone and now the US national team returns to World Cup qualifying.

Tonight in Kingston, Jamaica, the USMNT face the Reggae Boyz (9:30pm ET, beIN Sport) in a crucial clash that could have huge implications for the USA’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil next summer.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s side will be full of confidence, following their massive 4-3 friendly win over powerhouse Germany at RFK Stadium last Sunday. But they will want to exorcise some ghosts from Kingston, after losing 2-1 in the previous stage of qualifying back in September 2012.

That defeat showed what Jamaica are capable of, but the Caribbean outfit are without several starters and will be much changed since they defeated the US last year.

Rumors today from Jamaica have the pacy duo of Ryan Johnson and Darren Mattocks (both playing in Major League Soccer, with the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps respectively) starting up top, after Johnson cut a forlorn figure during Jamaica’s crushing 1-0 loss at home to Mexico in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday night.

(MORE: Three things to watch for US national team vs. Jamaica)

Klinsmann’s US side must be on their guard, as the Reggae Boyz know that anything less than a win tonight at the National Stadium, could spell the end for their World Cup hopes.

After the USA’s impressive display against Germany last weekend, Klinsmann is set to remain with the same starting lineup for one of the only times during his tenure with the US national team.

(MORE: U.S. news and notes as team arrives in Jamaica)

Brad Evans is set to remain at right back, with Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley the lynchpins in midfield.

Getting service to the red-hot Jozy Altidore will be key, as the 23-year-old forward is coming off a record goalscoring season in Holland with AZ Alkmaar (31 goals) and teamed up superbly with captain Clint Dempsey during the offensive masterclass against Germany last Sunday in the nations capital.

(MORE: Mexico tops Jamaica – and what it means for the United States)

The US are 11-1-8 all-time against Jamaica. But when the two nations have met in World Cup qualifying, results tend to be pretty even as the US has yet to win on Jamaican soil, with one loss and four draws.

After accumulating four points from their first three games in the Hexagonal tournament so far — a 2-1 loss to Honduras, a 1-0 win over Costa Rica and a 0-0 tie with Mexico — the US national team know a win tonight is crucial if they’re going to make the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.

What they’re saying

Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore, Jamaica’s head coach: “All is not lost, all is not lost. We did it already, and I’m sure we can do it again. We are on a positive vibe, because the last two training sessions have been good. We are confident because we know what we have to do, and that is to get three points … that is very important for us, and so we are looking forward to a good game.”

Donovan Ricketts, Jamaican captain: “Right now everyone is in a desperate position because we are all scrambling for points. But we are at home and you definitely need home games. Hopefully we can come out and play good football. We haven’t won since the [Hex] stage’s start, so hopefully we can get that right.”

Clint Dempsey, US captain : “Things can change quickly. And if you make a mistake you can find yourself on a bad run of form. So we can’t let that happen. We have to hit the ground running.”

Jurgen Klinsmann, US head coach : “We learned back in February that when you only come in two days before to a place where it is 90 degrees and really high humidity, it is simply not possible to adjust. So we will get in a few training sessions and experience what the field will be like, and we will be well prepared for Friday.”

Probable lineups

Jamaica (4-1-3-2): Ricketts; Powell, Mariappa, Woodbine, Gordon; Austin; Hue, McCleary, Watson; Johnson, Mattocks

USA (4-2-3-1): Howard; Evans, Gonzalez, Besler, Beasley; Bradley, Jones; Zusi, Dempsey, F. Johnson; Altidore.

Through the middle: Looking at what the U.S. midfield produced against Jamaica

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I spent most of Sunday morning starting at chalkboards at MLSSoccer.com, obsessed with one idea: “That pass Maurice Edu played (to Herculez Gomez) in the first minute. Why didn’t they try that more often?”

That’s easier said than done, though the concept is pretty straight forward. The team saw something that worked right off the bat: Herc running; midfield hitting him; profit. Why didn’t we see more of that?

That gets into a bigger, more subjective debate than I want to tackle here. For now, all I want to do is present some numbers to try and answer an implied question: Did we really see a lack of Edu-esque passes on Friday?

Starting with the premises that the first minute pass from Edu was a good thing, players try to perform that task, and teams would want to see more of that, I looked through the last four U.S. men’s games (three World Cup qualifiers and game in Mexico). I wanted to see how often Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is playing those types of passes, whether those numbers look high or low, and which players are playing the most passes of that type.

What are we looking for?

First, I need to define what type of passes I’m talking about. Check out how Edu’s Friday ball looks on the Opta-fueled chalkboard:

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Fascinating. If there’s a more boring way to represent that pass, I can’t imagine it.

Regardless, there are four characteristics of this ball that I think are important:

  • It’s a forward pass,
  • outside of the final third,
  • into the opposition’s final third,
  • and within the width of the penalty area.

That’s the criteria I’m using. How many times has the U.S. (and, to get context on each match, their opponents) completed passes that meet that criteria.

Disclaimer time: These Opta numbers can’t be taken that as gospel, especially if you’re not willing to re-watch a game and confirm them. In addition, the numbers without context are pretty useless.  A lot of these passes I’ll be citing may have no significance, and there are surely some that were important which don’t fit the criteria I’ve established.

So why even do this? Because if we get enough observations together, it does alleviate concerns that one or two deceptive passes can skew the whole endeavor. Plus, the Opta data and chalkboards gives us a way to establish some objective criteria (in this case, direction and location) that mitigates other subjective factors.

Opta has a number of different ways they characterize passes: Chip, dropped from hand, flick on, goal kick, headed ball, launch, and pass. Almost all of those can also be from a free kick. I’m focused on events from open play that are passes or short chips (trying to tease out crosses).

I’m also only looking at completed passes, even though tracking attempted passes might better capture a team’s intent. There are a number of other factors that come into play when collecting a negative result (all surrounding whether it was appropriate to play the pass at all). I decided to exclude them.

Jamaica vs. the United States

On Friday, the U.S completed nine passes that met this criteria. Jamaica had 10. Jermaine Jones’s four passes was tied with Jamaica’s Jason Morrison for game high. Maurice Edu (two) was the only other U.S. player with more than one:

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The numbers confirm that idea that Jamaica and the United States were on somewhat even footing. Jamaica never scored from open play, while the U.S. went 89 minutes without beating Dwayne Miler. But among the many things the number don’t do is provide context. Are 10 and nine (or, on the individual level, four) large or small numbers? What should we have been expecting from the U.S.?

Recent matches (Antigua and Barbuda, Guatemala, Mexico, Jamaica)

Looking back at the matches the U.S. has played since World Cup qualifying began adds a little more to the picture:

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It’s impossible to draw conclusions from this table, but it looks like defending was as much a problem as attacking. Jamaica didn’t score an open play goal, but both Beckerman and Edu’s fouls came after Jamaica had established possession in the U.S.’s end.

Regardless, the U.S.’s entries into the final third seem in line with what you’d expect, based on these four games. Mexico’s a superior side, while Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala offered far less resistance. Jamaica proved slightly tougher than Guatemala, though perhaps we wouldn’t have expected the final third passes to jump from three (at Guatemala) to 10 (again, insert relevance caveat here).

Individual numbers

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This is like looking at stats in the first week of the baseball season: Fun, but not very informative. There are some things here that jive with our instincts, like the downgrade from Bradley to Beckerman It’s also interesting to note where Edu and Jones sit on this list, particularly given 90 of Edu’s minutes are in defense. While this sample is small, they have better rates than their potential replacements, Torres and Beckerman.

Back to the initial point, which was about the Jamaica game. Why didn’t we see more passes like the one that put Gomez through? Looking across at the U.S.’s previous games, it’s not clear we should have expected more.

Though perhaps the point. Whatever the numbers were on Friday, they weren’t good enough. They led to the U.S.’s first loss in Jamaica. Perhaps looking at these and saying “they’re when we would have expected” may be too close to saying “the U.S. should have expected to lose in Jamaica.” For many people (including, probably, U.S. Soccer), that’s not acceptable.