The United States men's national team judges itself on international soccer's roadmap by far tougher criteria than the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying from the CONCACAF region.
The prospect of the little Caribbean nation striding into the Midwest and dancing home with a victory would have been unthinkable a week ago and may still be unlikely. But just as Jamaica punches well above its weight in track at the Olympics, its entertaining soccer team is also threatening to make some serious noise.
Victory for the Reggae Boyz over the USA in Kingston on Friday was celebrated wildly in the island nation, where an air of jubilation persists following the exploits of Olympic champion Usain Bolt and others in London last month.
Following the theory that confidence often means more than caliber in soccer, the Americans have some legitimate cause for concern heading into Tuesday's clash at Columbus Crew Stadium. Jurgen Klinsmann's side must finish in the top two in its four-team group to move on to the next round of World Cup qualification. Currently the U.S. sits second, tied with Guatemala.
This stage should have been a formality for the Americans, who on paper are by far the strongest squad in a group that also includes the tiny island nation of Antigua. As it is, they are in a dog fight with three games (two home, one away) still to play.
Jamaica, a team that has not reached a World Cup since 1998, is playing some of the best soccer in the region right now and legitimately believes it has a shot at causing what would be a huge upset on the road, Friday's result notwithstanding. The value of the feel-good factor of Jamaica's golden Olympic summer might be intangible, yet Jamaica head coach Theodore Whitmore is adamant it has played an important part in boosting the spirits of both his team and its supporters.
"[The Olympics] was a great achievement and it motivates me as a coach," Whitmore told the Jamaica Star. "It should do the same for our players. I don't think it could have come at a better time for us to be motivated going into the USA game."
Bolt's heroics contributed to Jamaica's outstanding haul of 12 Olympic medals in London (four of each color) to put the country 21st in the medal table and 18th in the gold medal standings – all from a nation with a population of less than three million.
"You can't help be inspired by it," said Nyron Nosworthy, who represents Jamaica, having grown up in London with a Jamaican father. "Special achievements like that on a global stage lift a whole country and of course it makes you want to go out there and emulate that, keep the good spirit going."
Columbus is a happy hunting ground for the USA, and Klinsmann's men will go into the contest as the favorite to avenge its dismal showing in Kingston. Injured stars Landon Donovan and, perhaps even more significantly, Michael Bradley are still missing, and greater tempo and tenacity will be demanded from the coach when his charges take the field.
If it is missing, then any complacency could be punished by an opponent riding a wave of national pride that started on the London track this summer.
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