A nice title for a preview of Friday's CONCACAF World Cup qualifier between the United States and Jamaica would have been, "Hooray, Soccer ... that actually counts" which probably would have been too long, so I'll use the Red Stripe joke here and get it out of the way so we can get to the pertinent business, ditto for the mandatory "Cool Runnings" reference this post is required by law to use.
However you'd like to slice it, it's been a different sort of summer for the United Statez(*). Jurgen Klinsmann tried to bill the May/June five-game series, which included three friendlies and two actual qualifiers as a mini-tournament. We all know it really wasn't. Plus it ended on a sour note via a 1-1 draw in a rather forgettable game in Guatemala that the U.S. probably should have taken three points from if not for a dodgy call and subsequent excellent free kick by Marco Pappa.
(*) Oops got carried away by thinking about the Reggae Boyz and their trend-setting plural usage of the letter z. Probably all the Code Red Mountain Dew I've been drinking while writing.
Then, a few weeks ago, the U.S. made history by notching its first win in Mexico City at the Estadio Azteca in a friendly all but washing the sour taste away from the Guatemala disappointment. This being international soccer, there's no time for the team to take any further bow for that historic result, note result -- not performance. As terrific as that win is, was, and ever will be ... it means zip come back-to-back qualifiers against an (allegedly) improving Jamaica squad.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the U.S. built a lot of character and team spirit in that victory in Mexico. Whatever new age platitudes toward team-building Klinsmann wants to spin is fine, yet ultimately you're only as good as your last result.
And in a weird bit of coincidental symmetry, the U.S. has never won a qualifier in Kingston, so perhaps buoyed by the post-victory oxygen masks in Mexico City the U.S. can make lightning strike twice in a row.
Odds are, the U.S. takes care of its business vs. Jamaica but this is the one chance the team does have toward stubbing its toe. This round of qualification -- unlike the final CONCACAF Hex -- doesn't leave any room for error since only the top two out of four advance. The U.S. is still atop the group, tied on four points with Jamaica. The top two advance and with the other two remaining fixtures a trip to Antigua and Barbuda and a home game against Guatemala in October in Kansas City -- it's not a 100 percent lock, but pretty darned close -- assuming the job gets done against Jamaica.
It's a longshot of longshots, but no sense leaving it up to chance.
The Reggae Boyz aren't quite World Cup caliber as they were a decade or so ago and the country lacks a standout guy, either homegrown or plucked from the lower-leagues of England. You could make an argument that MLS stalwart Dane Richards is the best of the bunch and although he's full of pace and has a nice goal-scoring ability from the midfielder, there's not a real solid reason the U.S. at this junction should be losing to Luton Shelton, Darren Mattocks, etc.
Still, unlike most CONCACAF teams Jamaica have size, speed and strength, so if the U.S. comes out and lays and egg as they've been wont to do every other match under Klinsmann these could be tricky games. That doubles without Landon Donovan, who's been ineffective in 2012 anyways and an out-of-form Clint Dempsey. The last meeting between the two sides -- the quarterfinals of the 2011 Gold Cup -- Jamaica played the U.S. tough, losing 2-0 at RFK on a second half-own goal and a late strike by Clint Dempsey. If memory serves the Reggae Boyz played very well in the first half and hit a post.
The U.S., does at the moment though, have two players scoring regularly in their domestic leagues worth exploiting -- Jozy Altidore and Terrance Boyd. You can argue that defense in the Dutch Eredivise is about as strong as Hollywood's collective contribution to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign (timely political reference!) or that the Austrian Bundesliga is a irrelevant backwater, but goals are goals and the U.S. for whatever the reason continually struggles to get consistent output from its strikers.
Without any clear-cut wide-forwards or wingers warranting automatic places in the starting XI, could Klinsmann embrace the missionary position of 4-4-2 and let the two promising players develop a chemisty that could blossom over the entire qualifying cycle? Altidore's been at his best in a U.S. shirt with a running partner and the big, physical and technically pretty okay Boyd could be that guy.
Looking at the rest of the roster, the U.S. doesn't have a clear-cut central midfield provider, unless you're still waiting on Jose Torres to be him, though Klinsmann seems to prefer to string him out wide despite his crippling lack of pace -- but oh that first touch! Instead we've left with the German Panzer midfielders of Jermaine Jones and Danny Williams, or Kyle Beckerman if you prefer since Michael Bradley, too, is out with injury. Geoff Cameron, too, might warrant a midfield spot based on his brief tenure at Stoke City.
The lack of any offensive cohesion, sans the late goal, was glossed over by the result vs. Mexico, so let's hope Klinsmann doesn't try to shoe-horn players into spots they can't play. Put Dempsey and Brek Shea on the flanks, hope for some overlaps by Steve Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson and away we go.
Or the U.S. can score on set pieces with their lumbering center backs.
Take care of business against Jamaica and then the team can take their much deserved bows for beating the hate El Tri on enemy soil October at Livestrong Park.
How quickly we've all become spoiled, as soccer fans in America. Nowadays we collectively take as a major affront when a game be it in Boston, Barcelona or Bora Bora isn't readily available on our television sets. Remember, we're still hardly a decade away when the bulk of soccer was limited to its sporadic ESPN broadcasts -- almost exclusively World Cup related -- or Spanish language channels. As I've written in the past any U.S. soccer fan who came up through the 90s can easily recite their favorite Spanglish pronunciations of American player games when a game was only broadcast on Univision a la "Mike BOORNS."
Friday night, the U.S. qualifier presents a conundrum.
ESPN didn't purchase the away game rights from the individual CONCACAF Federations (and would rather show a random mid-level NCAA football game anyway), leaving the game to be picked up by the nascent soccer broadcasting power in the United States, beIN Sports, which -- at the moment -- isn't readily available across cable providers.
Unless you have DirecTV you're pretty much out of luck to watch the game on your television. There will be other ways to view the action from Kingston however (wink wink).
Naturally the #usmnt Twitter-verse is probably going to go nuts that they're unable to watch Ray Hudson(*) shrieking at every Brek Shea touch. It's unfathomable, right, in 2012 not to be able to watch a soccer game on television.
(*) Apparently Hudson isn't even calling the match, meaning it's everybody's favorite Marcelo Balboa trying his best to string together sentences. Maybe it's not such a bad thing this game isn't readily available for consumption.
As long as beIN continues its aggressive push to gain cable carriers, chances are this will be a one-time occurrence and a minor annoyance. All things considered, we can all live without one game being on our television sets. If anything, blame the greedy federations around the Carribean trying to extract as much money as they can from American broadcasters.
Should be fun to see the reaction from bartenders and bar managers across the country when people show up at their establishments on Friday asking to put on "beIN Sport 1." Blank stares might be the least of it.
It used to be a lot worse, let's not forget this fact or the soccer cornucopia American viewers get to consume every week. Then again, the point of Twitter is to complain about "first world problems", so who am I to judge?
* Curious to see Geoff Cameron's future internationally. He clearly impressed in defense against Mexico, right before a move to Stoke City. With the Potters his role seems more in the midfield since he's probably not going to displace Ryan Shawcross or Robert Huth in central defense any time soon. As the continuing Maurice Edu (also now at Stoke) experiment has shown this isn't the easy trick to master. For every Danielle de Rossi slotting in a back spot with ease, there's a Javier Mascherano doing so with hit-or-miss success.
* Subplot alert: This match will settle once and for all, which is better: MLS or Bundesliga.
* Over/under is 4 1/2 on how many times it will be pondered on air what if Usain Bolt played soccer? Bill Simmons approves this line of thinking. Ugh.
* It's no secret I've never been the world's biggest Jonathan Spector fan, mainly because he always looks like he never liked playing soccer, that it was something his parents dragged him too when he was little and he happened to be good at it. That said, credit to him for sticking it out with Birmingham City in the English League Championship (second division) and carving out a place for himself. Still only 26 his versility across all defensive positions could still prove useful for Klinsmann.
* Potential dilemma in October. If the U.S. takes care of business vs. Jamaica and all but locks up a place in the final Hex, does Landon Donovan have to play his way back into the starting XI? Klinsmann, who's always been a Donovan supporter going back to their joint ill-fated spells at Bayern Munich, would be wise coming up with alternatives -- now rather than later -- for another way to play if Donovan's play becomes more sporadic ahead of 2014. Granted, the fading superstar (and all-time leading goalscorer) losing his place in the national team is tricky scenario to navigate for any coach or nation. Something to tuck away for the future.
* Blind speculation here on my part, but it seems increasingly as if Timmy Chandler wants nothing to do for playing for the U.S. Come closer to 2014 his tune might change, but Klinsmann likely won't forget these snubs.
* No idea why Klinsmann opted to bring in four keepers on this roster: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson and 33-year-old Nick Rimando. He still hasn't scored internationally, but wouldn't an in-form Chris Wondolowski make a little more sense here? Or any eligible out-field American player?
* Why moving to Europe isn't always all wine and roses: Tim Ream. The once-and-future stalwart for the U.S. defense moved to Bolton in January, saw the Trotters get relegated and now is evidently floundering in the Championship, coupled with unimpressive play in a U.S. shirt. Seems like he's way down on the depth chart in the defense.
* Wither Stuart Holden ... forever?
* Shame Josh Gatt had to withdraw from the team with injury since he's a pure winger that would ideally fit into Klinsmann's system.
Chances are Klinsmann goes more of a 4-3-3ish lineup, using Dempsey and Torres in wide positions. Still think this diamond-type 4-4-2 uses the U.S. personnel the best.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Cherundolo -- Cameron -- Bocanegra -- Johnson
MID -- Dempsey -- Jones -- Torres -- Shea
FOR -- Boyd -- Altidore
When the qualifying schedule came out this little home-and-home with Jamaica seemed like it could be tricky, but nothing all that much to worry about.
Chances are the U.S. comes away with six points, at worst four, but the fact it's never beaten Jamaica in Kingston in a competitive match, the lack of Donovan, the question marks over Dempsey, the lack of a offensive-minded midfielder ... adding it all up it might not be all that simple
Shame a majority of the U.S. soccer fanbase is going to be left searching for a way to watch it.