By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 23, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Last week the United States broke a 75-year winless streak on Mexican soil with its 1-0 friendly win in Mexico City, providing a timely boost for both the team and its supporters ahead of next month’s brace of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica.
In a curious turnabout, September’s games represent the latest chance for the island underdogs to do much the same, by breaking a historical hex that weighs nearly as heavily on their collective consciousness as that south of the border drought always has for the Yanks. Presently placed 66th in the FIFA world rankings, Jamaica have never defeated the US at senior international level, with a 0-10-8 all-time record.
A little over a year ago, Jamaica was riding high when they met the United States in a Gold Cup quarterfinal match at RFK Stadium. Taking encouragement from a perfect 3-0 record with no goals allowed in an admittedly soft Group B in the opening stages, this game looked like as good a chance as any to end the tradition of frustration.
Former Reggae Boyz star turned head coach Theodore Whitmore seemed to have ironed out some of the squad's self-destructive tendencies. The US had finished second in their group to Panama, losing to them in Tampa. Though the Gold Cup would eventually go down as the final chapter of Bob Bradley’s otherwise encouraging tenure as US National Team coach, it wouldn't come at the hands of Jamaica.
When the game finally kicked off in the nation’s capital, normal service quickly resumed. A muscular USA won the midfield battle with surprising ease. Even after striker Jozy Altidore’s early departure due to a hamstring strain, the frontline inundated veteran Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts with shots en route to a 2-0 win made all the more straightforward by a 67th minute red card to Jamaica's Jermaine Taylor.
“We’ll learn from this and come back again,” said MLS-based Jamaican defender Shavar Thomas afterward. “We definitely weren’t at our best in terms of our buildup and what we’ve been doing throughout the tournament. But next time we’ll be ready.”
As his coach can testify, “next time we’ll be ready” has been something of a mantra for the Reggae Boyz when it comes to the US, just as past generations of American players once implicitly accepted their Mexican counterparts' superiority. And that’s a far cry – much too far – from the swagger with which Usain Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican track team ruled the roost at the London Olympics earlier this summer.
Much like the complex Mexican/American experiences of immigration and economic interdependence have added untold layers to that border rivalry, the United States’ unquestioned cultural dominance in the Caribbean hangs over this footballing picture.
Jamaica’s 2.8 million inhabitants and their fellow West Indians are hyper-aware of their tiny homeland's limited scope on the global scale. In soccer as in life at large, ambitious islanders must go abroad to develop their careers to the fullest. At the end of the last century a cyclical phase of decline saw Jamaica’s FIFA world rankings slip low enough to disrupt players’ efforts to earn work permits for the English leagues, a development which helped prompt some to shift their outlook towards the US.
Fueled by the combined influence of the NCAA system and Major League Soccer's growing taste for regional talent, this evolution has helped revitalize the player pool in ways that scouring for foreign-based players with Jamaican heritage simply could not. The Reggae Boyz roster for last week’s 2-0 win over El Salvador at RFK included a whopping nine MLS regulars. That number which could well continue to grow as the likes of Darren Mattocks, Ryan Johnson, and Je-Vaughn Watson illustrate that quality and value can be found in spite of Jamaica’s limited youth development resources – especially when a prospect has spent enough time in the US to receive elite coaching, and perhaps work towards a green card to boot.
“I was definitely getting that advice, to go to Europe,” Mattocks, who earned his first cap against El Salvador, told MLSsoccer.com earlier this month. “But…at the end of the day, I weighed the pros and cons for each and most definitely decided that college would be the better route to take in terms of getting the best out of my soccer. I needed to get a bit sharper and learn before going pro.”
Just as the increasing yanqui infiltration of the Mexican pro system seems to have chipped away at the mystique surrounding El Tri and their home venue, could the daily experience of MLS competition help Jamaica close their own “gap” with the giant to the north? Or is it merely reinforcing the status quo?
Fundamental disparities in size and wealth mean it will probably always persist, and soccer has only recently woven itself into the Jamaican character as firmly and universally as sprinting and cricket. But the country’s wealth of raw talent now has a legitimate pathway to meaningful soccer opportunities, a path which increasingly runs through the same nation that owns that daunting 10-0-8 all-time record against the Reggae Boyz.
As we’ve so recently seen, however, every streak must end sometime. The United States will need composure and focus to ensure that the shoe does not wind up on the other foot in Kingston on September 7th and in Columbus four days later.
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