The Reggae Boyz are everywhere. On billboards, in store windows, on TV and radio, in the newspapers.
"More Power to the Boyz!" proclaims a sign sponsored by a utility company. Another, splashed with the island's national colors, stands along a curvy road next to the athletic wall of fame, behind the statue of reggae icon Bob Marley and a few hundred yards from National Stadium, where the Boyz, formally known as the Jamaican national soccer team, will play the United States on Wednesday evening.
It's the opening match in the semifinal round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, and although these teams are favored to claim the two top slots in the four-nation group and advance to next year's final stage, this early encounter has stirred passions in the Caribbean and temporarily diverted attention from the Olympics.
The Boyz have never beaten the Americans in 13 meetings, not even here at "The Office," nestled between the bustling New Kingston district and the foothills of the coffee-rich Blue Mountains. This stadium isn't nearly as intimidating as most in Central America and the Caribbean, thanks to an old velodrome that serves as a buffer between the concrete grandstands and the sun-scarred pitch.
But the fans' intense national pride is known to surface hours before kickoff and not relent until well after the match ends. In years past, well-known disc jockeys on field level provided ear-piercing pregame entertainment, colorfully dressed characters got the crowd whipped into a fury and tri-colored flags snapped throughout the game.
"I don't think it's any different than anywhere else," U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said. "Every venue on the road is difficult. Jamaica has its own difficulties, although I still think it's a country with good people, very respectful, good sports fans for both their home team and the visiting team. It's not a tremendously hostile environment. However, the challenge is the team on the field, which is a good team, arguably one that can qualify for the next round."
Added U.S. captain Claudio Reyna: "From my experiences, it's usually not as hostile [here] as in Central America. The Caribbean countries are a little more laid back in their approach, at least when we come down, but it's still a difficult place to play. The field has been cleaned up and is better, but before it was as bad as any in the [region]. There's the heat, it's windy as well . . . but anywhere you go in the world, it's hard to get anything.
"Our approach now is that we have to go into these games realizing that we are a bigger scalp than ever before" after advancing to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup.
Although the Jamaicans are playing at home, most of their squad and coaching staff didn't arrive until just a few days ago. The best Boyz play professionally in England, where new coach Sebastiao Lazaroni, who guided his native Brazil at the 1990 World Cup, has been monitoring their progress in league competition. Among them are forwards Marlon King of Nottingham Forest and Ricardo Fuller of Preston North End, and midfielders Ricardo Gardner of Bolton Wanderers and Micah Hyde of Burnley.
Some of Jamaica's foreign-based players have distant connections to the island: Hyde was born in England to Jamaican and Trinidadian parents, English-raised forwards Deon Burton and Jason Euell and midfielder Richard Langley have Jamaican fathers, and King recently chose Jamaica over England and Ireland, to which he also has family ties.
King, a 24-year-old who scored four times in two games against Haiti in the previous World Cup qualifying round, is expected to be joined on the frontline by the Chicago Fire's Damani Ralph, the MLS rookie of the year in 2003. Ralph, who played at the University of Connecticut, is one of three MLS-based players available on Wednesday, joining Chicago teammate Andy Williams and Los Angeles defender Tyrone Marshall.
The U.S. squad also has a player with Jamaican roots -- promising defender Cory Gibbs, a Brown University graduate from south Florida whose parents are from St. Mary parish on the north side of the island.
"It's my background, it's my heritage, it's my family, so there's a part of Jamaica that's still inside of me," said Gibbs, whose brother, Omar, played goalkeeper for Jamaica several years ago. Gibbs said about a dozen relatives would attend Wednesday's match, including his mother, who now lives in Jamaica, and his father, who planned to fly to Kingston this week.
"They're all rooting for the United States," he said. "Their hearts are with me."
While victory might be difficult to come by, the U.S. team certainly wouldn't mind a tie -- the result in the previous three qualifiers here between these teams (0-0 in 1989, 1997 and 2001).
"Anytime you play on the road, one point or three points is obviously a very good result," Arena said. "Would I be happy with a point? I'm not sure I'd be jumping for joy [because] clearly our goal is to leave with three points."