Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Matchday Six: In Search of Motivation

The US National Team will take the pitch this evening in its final match of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for 2004 with advancement to the final stage secure. Jamaica needs a win in order to punch its ticket to the Hex without outside help and should plan to bring the house at the US to that end. The motivation for the home side is an amalgam of different emotions. For some players, tonight is an opportunity to show Bruce Arena that he should keep them in mind when qualifying starts again in February. For others, the opportunity is there to move up the food chain in the pool with a good showing (Eddie Johnson, Oguchi Onyewu, Pablo Mastroeni). For some of the Europe-based players in camp, tonight presents a chance to play a full 90-minute match against a decent opponent. The most complex sort of motivation tonight will be that of the team in general.

Since the US has already clinched a place in the Hex, the result of tonight's match is meaningless in the eyes of some, nothing more than a glorified friendly. Those of us who follow soccer (and write on it from the fan's perspective), however, see a myriad of motivations for the team. Some of us think the US should play all-out, both to eliminate Jamaica and make the road to Germany less stressful while at the same time proving our dominance in the region. Others think we need to blood talent for next year and that it doesn't matter who comes with us from the group to the Hex. I take a slightly-different approach and think of the long-term implications of tonight's match.

What we need to do tonight comes down to one key question: Will the US qualify for Germany NO MATTER WHO is in the Hex or not? If one says no, then by all means we need to pave the easiest road possible and should shell the Reggae Boyz. If yes, then the bigger question of "what is in the best long-term interests of the US National Team?" shoud be asked. For the momentum of the quarterfinal finish in Korea/Japan to be sustained, we need to keep our world ranking up. Playing Panama or El Salvador twice next year would not be helpful in that regard, especially if we drew a match with one of them. A road draw against Jamaica, however, wouldn't hurt as much. Given the gap in standing between Jamaica and the other two teams in our group, having Jamaica in the Hex would help us in the efforts to qualify for a seed in 2006 or 2010 (or help Mexico as well). Getting a seed almost ensures advancement to the knock-out stages, since one would avoid Brazil, Argentina, and a number of very good European sides. The points separating the teams between 6 and 12 are so few that getting good results against slightly-better opposition might make a difference between a group of Argentina/Sweden/Portugal/USA and USA/Denmark/Ireland/Ecuador, and if it doesn't do so for 2006 it might for 2010 or 2014. In the grand scheme of things, the US is better-served by having Jamaica in the Hex because the higher the ranking of the team you beat, the more points you can secure, and in a game of inches, a couple extra points on a sheet of paper can go a long way.

Prediction: In a match that will be heavily-influenced by scoreboard-watching, the US and Jamaica will play to a somewhat-entertaining 1-1 draw. Jamaica advances with this result amid cries of collusion from the Panamanian federation and is rewarded with a February 9th date on the road at The United States of America.
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