KINGSTON, Jamaica – The bus carrying the U.S. men’s soccer team squeezed along narrow, abused roads, past compact shops with hand-written signs and homes packed together like shipping crates. The destination was a scruffy little stadium in Arnett Gardens, a tough neighborhood in central Kingston known to the locals as the “Concrete Jungle.”
As players spilled onto the rutty field for practice, police with ominous weapons stood guard. Worn billboards and, further in the distance, the Blue Mountains furnished a layered backdrop. Children gathered behind rusted fences and atop adjacent structures to gain view.
This is precisely what Coach Juergen Klinsmann wanted.
After two weeks in comfortable surroundings for training sessions and low-stress friendlies back home, the Americans entrenched themselves in this hard-scrabble port city. They arrived midday Tuesday, some 36 hours earlier than they would normally set foot on foreign ground for a World Cup qualifier.
“It puts us in the right state of mind,” said Klinsmann, whose team will play Jamaica on Friday night at National Stadium, the first of three qualifiers over 12 days.
The Americans (1-1-1) practiced twice at Arnett Gardens, home to the National Premier League club of the same name, before gaining access to the main stadium in Independence Park on Thursday evening.
The early arrival has allowed them to acclimate to the Caribbean heat and humidity. Not that their previous locale, Washington, was much cooler. But being on site, knowing “the way this place works, it can only help you,” Klinsmann said.
It allowed him and his staff to scout Jamaica’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Tuesday. Another home defeat would, for practical if not mathematical purposes, end Jamaica’s qualifying ambitions midway through the campaign. The Reggae Boyz are 0-2-2 and have just two home games in the second half of the schedule.
“They are climbing up the wall right now,” defender Brad Evans said. “They are fighting for their lives to get points. Coming off a real tough test against Mexico, it has got to be physically and mentally exhausting.”
The Americans lost here in September in the semifinal round, their only defeat against Jamaica in 20 meetings. But say they are better prepared this time and motivated by the setback.
“We want to correct it,” Klinsmann said, “because it still sits in the stomach.”
Ahead of the match last fall, European-based players immersed in their club seasons had little time to reconnect and embrace the environment. The same situation unfolded before the first game of the final round, a 2-1 loss at Honduras in February.
With most of his players on summer break from their pro leagues, Klinsmann assembled his crew early for friendlies against Belgium and Germany — as well as abundant training opportunities in between.
Beyond the Jamaica match, the Americans will play qualifiers Tuesday against Panama in Seattle and June 18 against Honduras in Salt Lake City’s suburbs.
Each of the six teams in the regional group will play 10 games overall, with three earning automatic berths in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A fourth team will enter a special playoff in the fall against the Oceania champion.
Although the approaching home games are paramount — the qualifying mantra is to win at home and claim a few points on the five road trips — the U.S. team senses an opportunity to capitalize on Jamaica’s form and fatigue.
“A team like that, maybe not with as much confidence in themselves as they should, we can go after them and break their spirit,” midfielder Graham Zusi said.
Regardless of setting and circumstance, the Americans have not had an easy go of it in the qualifying process. Klinsmann has experimented with combinations and formations while placing faith in inexperienced players and asking more from the veterans.
The build-up to these qualifiers did not start well. A 4-2 loss to Belgium in Cleveland could have been much worse. The Americans rebounded against an understaffed German team at RFK Stadium, winning 4-3. The attack was confident and fluid but the defense continued to leak goals.
Will it all come together Friday and carry through the next two qualifiers?
“It’s time to get down to business,” captain Clint Dempsey said. “We want as many points as possible so we are not stressing coming into those [last] four games” this fall.