AFTER an interminable wait, the final round CONCACAF WCQ schedule has finally been unveiled for Jamaica and their five opponents at the Hexagonal draw in Florida last week.
As fate would have it, the Reggae Boyz' first engagement will be against regional powerhouse Mexico, presumably in the intimidating high-altitude Azteca stadium. As expected, this has triggered animated discussions.
Despite having been in the wilderness for the past 14 years in senior global appearance, Jamaica's football has matured appreciably, and though it's still possible to be swamped by the efficient Mexicans at the famed venue, it has become increasingly unlikely, though a defeat would not be unexpected.
In fact, as the USA showed earlier this year by inflicting consecutive defeats on the Mexicans at the said location, the gap between teams in the region has dramatically shrunk over the years, to the extent that the imminent final phase could be extremely close and could be determined by the last kick of the ball.
Despite the anxieties associated with the draw, it was a case of much ado about nothing as the truth is that all six teams will have to face each other at home and away, with everybody hoping to capitalise on home advantage in the race for the three automatic berths to the 2014 WC Finals.
The irony is that the away matches will be the decisive factor for all teams in this frenetic 30-game series based on the assumption that they will fare better and garner most points in familiar climes. Further, depending on perception, playing two consecutive matches on the road — or at home — matters not, as there could be advantages as well as disadvantages to either scenario.
As Jamaica ponder their treacherous journey towards Brazil, success will obviously depend on strategic planning, perhaps with team selection the most urgent consideration at the onset. That's why we wait with bated breaths the JFF's report on its current recruitment drive in the United Kingdom.
Indeed, Reggae Boyz fans are anxious to know whether they will see in the Jamaican colours the likes of Reading midfielder/captain Jobi McAnuff — after his brief appearance in an international friendly against Nigeria in England a few years ago — and highly-rated striker Jermaine Beckford.
Somewhere in the mix as well could be Swansea City winger Nathan Dyer; Reading defender Shaun Cummings and winger Gareth McCleary; Queen's Park Rangers' winger David Hoilett; Derby County striker Theo Robinson; Newcastle defender Danny Simpson and defender James Perch.
At this stage, it appears unlikely we'll see teenage star Raheem Sterling in like fashion, having again been summoned by England for an international friendly against Sweden.
Once Sterling takes the field this time around, having sat on the bench for his maiden call-up earlier this year, we can say goodbye to the imperious talent of the temperamental Jamaican-born player who would no doubt bolster our offensive thrust. The suspicion is that with Jamaica breathing down their necks, England will on this occasion leave nothing to chance.
Certainly, based on what was revealed in the last qualifying series, the Reggae Boyz desperately need a lift in personnel which is not limited to any one position. As was glaringly uncovered, there are critical inefficiencies in the vital areas of defence and midfield, and especially in attack.
In returning to that CONCACAF final round schedule, one notes that after Mexico on February 6, the Boyz play Panama at home on March 22; travel to Costa Rica four days later, and host Mexico and the United States on June 4 and 7, respectively, for their first five engagements.
Without even considering the rest of the schedule, by the time the Boyz have competed these five matches — three of them at home — they would've had an excellent idea of their prospects of gaining an automatic berth. For, if we win those three home games — as we desperately need to — we would be sitting pretty with at least nine points, assuming we won't fare as well in our first two away outings against Mexico and Costa Rica.
Again, if we gather maximum points at home against the aforementioned trio of Mexico, US and Panama, we would have effectively disposed of the top three nations in the group at the halfway stage of the competition and would have seized a massive psychological edge.
Is it possible to win those three crucial games, we might ask. The reality is that our advancement depends on it and so we have little recourse, really. With our modest away record in recent years, especially in Central America, our best hope is to snatch a point against Honduras and Costa Rica. It has rarely been done, but is still possible as we recall Warren Barrett's team salvaging a goalless draw against Honduras and Paul Hall's solo effort a few years ago.
A clincher in the recent draw, of course, is the fact that we play our final game at home against Honduras — a situation that could prove decisive and would be in our favour should it come down to the wire. One would hope, however, that by the time October 15 comes around, we would have been home and dry and finetuning preparations for the South American spectacle a few months hence.
Now that the schedule is out of the way, the JFF has its work cut out to summon a core of players and organise friendly games to facilitate team chemistry. Indeed, there are tremendous advantages to be gained if the Reggae Boyz hit the ground running.