Boyz move into the lion's den
FROM THE SPORTS DESK
SO the monkey is finally off the backs of the Reggae Boyz. Led by two brilliant set plays on Friday evening at the National Stadium, they pulled off a historic 2-1 victory over the United States in their top-of-the-table Group A World Cup qualifying clash, forcing their fans to believe again.
In the process, Theodore Whitmore's side proved what their followers had suspected for some time: That they have the skill and personnel to topple the best in CONCACAF and progress to another World Cup Finals.
It's early days yet as far as qualifying for Rio 2014 is concerned, but having vaulted to the top of their semi-final group with seven points from three matches, they seem on their way to advancing to the next phase of qualifying, barring any hiccups against Guatemala and Antigua and Barbuda.
What was most pleasing about Friday's performance was the resolve displayed after falling behind to Clint Dempsey's easy but clinical finish in the very first minute of the game.
Indeed, fans were still making their way inside the venue when a naive Jamaican team allowed the visitors to waltz unmolested through the middle of the park and snatch the lead after no more than seven passes.
Shell-shocked at the swift turn of events, the Boyz, however, maintained their cool and gradually imposed their own style on the game. It came as a welcome relief — but not as a total surprise — when Rodolph Austin's powerful free-kick from outside the box rocketed into the net after a deflection later in the half to pull his team level.
The towering Austin, who had a good game from attacking midfield, had earlier threatened with another of his trademark long-range kicks which whistled just over the crossbar.
Luton Shelton sealed victory and three crucial points by asserting his authority on another spot kick, curling the delivery away from a diving goalkeeper to send the capacity venue into ecstasy in the second period.
Better known for his pacey runs down the flanks than for his dead-ball skills, the lanky skipper worked hard all evening and deserved the prolonged ovation from the crowd when he was substituted minutes before the end of the match.
In spite of the famous win at 'The Office', the team is a work in progress and is some distance from executing a perfect game. I was dissatisfied with several aspects of their play, most significantly, the infuriatingly over-cautious approach adopted by left flank defender Jermaine Taylor.
Quite an experienced player at this level, I could not for the life of me figure out why the former Harbour View and St George's man repeatedly refused to part-take in the team's attacks, preferring instead to sit in defence, thus depriving his teammates the extra player in the crucial final third.
Perhaps Taylor was playing to instruction, but knowing Whitmore's attacking tendencies as both player and coach, I doubt that was the case. In fact, both he and midfielder Jason Morrison made numerous passing and positional errors and were the weak links on the day.
Striker Ryan Johnson, meanwhile, was ineffective against the US defenders, who had a field day roughing him up and frustrating him, to the point where one sensed he could lose his cool at any moment. Normally a dependable forward, Johnson had a forgettable day and should've been replaced much earlier than he eventually was.
On the other hand, a big plus was the maturity shown by young Darren Mattocks who had a solid half-hour run in the second half. A touch player who recently debuted for the national team, the former Bridgeport High star was assured — almost arrogant — on the ball and gave the impression he was ready to explode. Again, an admirable trait was his defensive work rate. He thwarted several attacks with timely tackles running back while his teammates were in retreat mode.
But all that is now history. With the return tie scheduled for Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, the real test looms for the Reggae Boyz. For sure, the USA cannot afford to lose successive games at this stage of the qualifiers.
Obviously smarting and utterly embarrassed by this recent result, coach Jurgen Klinsmann's job will not be guaranteed if he dares to lose to the same under-rated opponents for a second time.
The jury is out on whether or not a few of their injured players, including the prolific Landon Donovan, will recover in time for Tuesday's game. What is, however, certain is that the Reggae Boyz can expect everything to be thrown at them by a home team desperate to salvage pride and grappling with the uncertainty that comes with a shock defeat.
Emerging guru Whitmore and the technical staff can thus expect their team to be picked apart by all available technology up to the start of Tuesday's game. I'm also sure one of the weaknesses to be identified is in defence where goalkeeper Dwayne Miller lacked confidence in the early stages, as his nervy clearances would suggest.
Can the Boyz spring another surprise — this time in the backyard of the mighty USA? I wouldn't bet on it, and would further advise Whitmore to play smartly for a point, which would give us an admirable four out of a possible six in the two-way series against the top team in the group.