When the United States and Jamaica meet in the semifinals of the CONCACAF U-17 Championship on Friday (7 pm, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3), both will have already completed their primary goal for the tournament.
The Americans qualified for their 14th straight U-17 World Cup after defeating El Salvador 1-0 in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, while the hosts advanced to their first since 1999 with a 2-1 victory over Honduras.
The two squads have a recent history as the US posted a 2-1 victory and a 0-0 draw in matches with the Young Boyz during a two-game training trip to the Jamaica in January. Coach Wilmer Cabrera will rest some of his stars after a grueling 300 minutes of soccer, while his counterpart, Wendell Downswell, undoubtedly wants to win in front of the home crowd.
Even if Cabrera wanted to play his best 11, he can't, thanks left back Kellyn Acosta and starting goalkeeper Fernando Piña ineligible after being shown red cards late against El Salvador. Midfielder Matt Dunn will also miss the match due to yellow-card accumulation. As a result, at least three players who have started every game will be out, but other regulars won't feature, either.
Before the tournament, the coach talked about wanting to test his players in international conditions to see who would survive. This is the best opportunity to do so, a game where there's no pressure but a decidedly antagonistic crowd.
Waiting until the final or third-place game would be a missed opportunity. Tarik Salkicic and Dillon Serna, who haven't figured since the first match, should get a look in central midfield, while Paul Arriola – the only player not to see the field – should start next to LA Galaxy Home Grown product Jack McBean.
A lot can change between now and the World Cup. Cabrera needs to get everyone he brought to Jamaica some time on the field. It will only help increase the depth of the club when they arrive in Mexico, a tournament that will be much more difficult than the CONCACAF Championship.
The qualification of the Young Boyz is a nice story in a tournament that's been snakebitten with bad news (the last-minute venue change and the treatment of Haiti's team). They earned just their second trip to the World Cup with a win that wasn't exactly an upset, but it was impressive nonetheless. The teenagers have been encouraged by the raucous home crowds and are feeding off their enthusiasm. Catherine Hall Stadium will be sold out once again for the semifinals despite the Jamaican Football Federation's decision to raise ticket prices for the knockout rounds.
Unlike Cabrera, Downswell will bring out his best lineup. Jason Wright, who has four goals in three matches, and Omar Holness lead the squad. The latter player is dangerous in possession and on long throws. He created Jamaica's first goal against Honduras with a launch into the box. The American back line, which has lost their focus at points throughout the tournament, needs to be aware.
United States: Dillon Serna
Alejandro Guido has been the US' best player during the tournament, but he should get a night off in the semifinal. That means the playmaking duties will fall to Serna, the Colorado Rapids Academy product who started against Cuba. He played OK in that game, but he'll need to be better if he has designs of fighting for more playing time going forward.
Jamaica: Jason Wright
The forward is well on his way to becoming a minor national sensation after almost single-handedly leading Jamaica into the World Cup with his scoring prowess. He needs to be closed down immediately when he receives the ball. Failure to do so cost Honduras a trip to Mexico. The stakes aren't as high for the US, but he can embarrass defenses easily.
US Projected Starting XI
McIntosh; Carroll, Fehr, Souders, Smith, E Rodriguez, Salkicic, Serna, Pelosi, McBean, Arriola
Jamaica projected starting XI
Clarke; Powell, Jenkins, Wallace, Smith, Holness, Lewis, Lawson, Jones, Williams, Wright
This match means more to Jamaica than it does to the US. Take the Young Boyz and the crowd.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.