Theodore Whitmore’s Jamaica continues to prop up the eight-team table for the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers after teenage star striker Ricardo Pepi bagged a brace as the United States swept past the Reggae Boyz last night (7 October).
The 18-year-old FC Dallas hot-shot notched goals after 49 and 62 minutes respectively, which highlighted to head coach Whitmore what expert finishing is all about.
Despite Whitmore opting for a top heavy squad of forwards for the intimidating encounter inside the jam-packed Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, the Boyz mustered just a single shot on target courtesy of Jamal Lowe’s effort late in the opening half.
Whitmore had headaches over the team selection before kick-off with four English-based players selected out. West Ham’s Michail Antonio, whose Jamaican debut last month was largely unforgettable, did not travel for what he described as “logistical reasons”. Defensive duo Liam Moore (Reading), Ethan Pinnock (Brentford) and midfielder Daniel Johnson (Preston North End) all pulled out with injuries.
And Cavalier shotstopper Jeadine White received a late call-up to replace fellow Red Stripe Premier League goalkeeper Dennis Taylor (Humble Lions FC).
And things almost turned from bad to worse for Whitmore in the opening minute. Kemar Lawrence hacked down winger Paul Arriola from behind in the 18th second, but with no VAR Grenada’s referee Reon Radix gave him the benefit of the doubt and only booked the defender.
The initial chance fell to Jamaica on 11 minutes, but Tyreek Magee fired his left-footed effort narrowly off target of finding the top right corner.
It took another 10 minutes before the organised hosts made a noteworthy attack, with Juventus’ Weston McKennie forlornly pumping his long distance shot wide off target.
With the match becoming a midfield battle, the Boyz were once again fortunate to not see a red card brandished. Damion Lowe was just cautioned for bringing down Brenden Aaronson on 33 minutes.
AFC Bournemouth striker Jamal Lowe came close to breaking the deadlock with his marvellous low, curling left-footed drive. But Matt Turner dived to sweep away the danger.
And on the 45-minute mark Shamar Nicholson should have scored, but his glancing header from a corner kick was screwed past the far post.
Whitmore would surely have been happy with the Boyz entering the break on level terms and with 11 players. Yet Jamaica had bossed the game at times, as well as survived two questionable calls from the ref that could have been straight red cards.
After the turnaround it was the magic from Pepi who badly exposed Jamaica’s flat-footed defence. He was left unmarked to easily head Sergino Dest’s right-sided cross past Andre Blake from six yards. The breakthrough made Pepi the youngest ever US player to score goals in consecutive World Cup qualification matches.
This strike lifted the full capacity crowd and the hosts, with Jamaica suddenly in disarray and the match looking one-sided for the first time.
It was now a question of when a second goal would arrive, and Dest almost obliged on 57 minutes. He confidently dribbled to just outside the box only for Adrian Mariappa to chop him down. But Dest steered the resultant free-kick high of the target.
With the Boyz struggling Whitmore wisely threw on the attacking pair of Junior Flemmings and Kemar Roofe for Jamal Lowe and Tyreek Magee on 61 minutes.
But then the unmarked Pepi doubled the lead with an easy finish from six yards, polishing off Brenden Aaronson’s cross as Mariappa lost his footing.
The Boyz now appeared stranded and bewildered, but were relieved to see man of the match Pepi substituted on 68 minutes.
Gyasi Zardes should have made it three but fluffed his close range efforts on 78 and 85 minutes. His first chance missed the target, and Blake recovered to pull the ball into his chest just before it crossed the line to deny Zardes’ second goal-scoring opportunity.
But the Boyz came perilously close to snatching a consolation strike in added time, only for Nicholson to fire wide.
Next up for the Boyz in these three successive qualifiers is the visit of Canada to Kingston’s National Stadium on Sunday. Three days later Honduras play hosts in San Pedro Sula.
Those next two games could determine Jamaica’s chances of advancing to Qatar next year as they sit rock bottom of the table. The Boyz have some catching up to do as only the top three teams automatically qualify for Qatar 2022.
However, despite three defeats from four matches in this campaign, it should be noted that Jamaica have tackled the big guns of Costa Rica, Mexico and the US already.
And their successful route to the World Cup finals in France 1998 also saw a stuttering start, with Whitmore then a midfield maestro to help turn around their fortunes. Whether he can prove to be an influential figure again rests on whether his misfiring forwards can start to grab goals.
JAMAICA: Blake – Lawrence, Mariappa, D.Lowe, Powell (Brown,83) – Watson, Williams – J.Lowe (Flemmings, 61), Magee (Roofe, 61), Decordaova-Reid (East, 71) – Nicholson. Subs: Topey, Fisher, Barnes, Gray, White.
CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers table (after 4 matches) | USA 8pts, Mexico 8pts, Canada 6pts, Panama 5pts, El Salvador 5pts, Costa Rica 3pts, Honduras 3pts, Jamaica 1pt
Jamaica’s FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifiers
2 September | 2-1 defeat to Mexico (a)
5 September | 3-0 defeat to Panama (h)
8 September | 1-1 draw with Costa Rica (a)
7 October | 2-0 defeat to USA (a)
10 October | Canada (h)
13 October | Honduras (a)
12 November | El Salvador (a)
16 November | USA (h)
27 January | Mexico (h)
30 January | Panama (a)
2 February | Costa Rica (h)
24 March | El Salvador (h)
27 March | Canada (a)
30 March | Honduras (h)
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