KINGSTON, Jamaica – Juergen Klinsmann has trotted the globe during an illustrious life in soccer, but in his first World Cup qualifying cycle as the U.S. men’s national team coach, the German legend is discovering new lands and, accordingly, fresh challenges.
Klinsmann supervised a historic victory last month at Mexico’s Azteca Stadium, which pulsated with anti-U.S. fury. Jamaica’s National Stadium, the venue for Friday’s match, will pulsate as well, only with Caribbean rhythms.
While the thin air of Mexico City offered a more problematic setting – the Americans had never won at the 110,000-seat venue before the 1-0 victory Aug. 15 – the result was, in the end, inconsequential. More important assignments awaited.
Which brings the U.S. squad to Kingston, where the stadium is one-third the size of Azteca, the opponent is less potent and, despite an official advisory warning fans to not bring along, among other accessories, “machetes and ice picks,” the reception is typically partisan but welcoming.
The stakes, however, are grander, for this is a 2014 World Cup qualifier.
“We went into Mexico, and I said, ‘We want to win at Azteca,’ ” Klinsmann said upon his arrival in Jamaica for the first time. “We came out with a wonderful result, a historic result, but now you have to come into Jamaica – a very difficult game – and then you have to prove again what you did in Mexico.
“We’re not looking back at Mexico, we’re not looking back at Italy [a 1-0 U.S. upset early this year]. We have to be solely focused on this game.”
Although this is not a do-or-die game – it’s the third of six matches in CONCACAF’s semifinal round — the margin of error is narrowing. The Americans and Reggae Boyz are atop Group A with four points apiece, while Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda have one each. Two teams will advance to next year’s final round.
The United States and Jamaica will meet again Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, presenting an opportunity for Klismann’s crew to all but secure passage with a pair of victories or a win and a draw.
“The Mexico and Italy games stand out, but as much as we are proud of those results and were great occasions for us, we realize the importance of these games going forward,” midfielder Maurice Edu said. “Those matches gave us confidence in our ability and what we’re truly able to accomplish, but this is for real now.”
Although the Americans have never lost to Jamaica, recording 10 victories and eight draws, they haven’t had an easy time in four all-time qualifiers at National Stadium: four ties, with one goal scored.
The venue, which features a running track and velodrome wrapped around the field, is known as “The Office.” Years ago, the Reggae Boyz boasted a 50-game unbeaten streak there.
In explaining its mystique, Jamaica midfielder Dane Richards said: “It’s The Office. Anybody in their office must be special in their work environment. Nobody can come into your house and take your TV when you are watching it. This is our home and our office.”
Added Coach Theodore Whitmore, “In any office and any business, the boss is in charge.”
Despite being buoyed by the Mexico conquest, the Americans are not invulnerable. Attacker Landon Donovan, the program’s all-time leading scorer, is out with a hamstring injury. Italy-based midfielder Michael Bradley is sidelined with a quadriceps ailment.
And although he was selected for the Jamaica matches, Clint Dempsey, American soccer’s hottest property, lacks fitness and form after being snared in a summer transfer drama. He finally moved to Tottenham Hotspur from Fulham just before last Friday’s deadline.
“I feel good,” Dempsey said after three days of work at U.S. camp in Miami. “I was able to do some fitness in England, but you can’t really replicate what it’s like to play in a game until you go out and play in it.”
Defensively, the Americans are wary of Jamaica’s speed and athletic ability – assets that have troubled the U.S. resistance over the years. Klinsmann, however, didn’t seem concerned, saying: “We have speed all over the place. We hope to not only match the speed, but top it in some areas.”
Nonetheless, the Americans are bracing for a test. Drawing from previous trips to small countries, forward Jozy Altidore said: “I’ve learned that, regardless of how good you are, you have to come here and fight. It doesn’t matter if you are Spain. Soccer-wise, you may not be as good as you want, but in terms of intensity, you have to match it and, from there, the soccer will come.”