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CONCACAF Chronicles: World Cup Qualifying third window preview

A heavyweight fight and an emerging dark horse headline the official midway point in the 2022 qualifying cycle.

A photo from the Gold Cup final match between the US and Mexico

“CONCACAF Chronicles” is a column by Sam Reno about North American soccer.

Six matches before, six matches after and two matches within.

Let’s take a look at the two biggest things to watch in the third window of World Cup Qualifying.

USA vs. Mexico 2021 Part 3: Do the Americans have enough?

The United States famously got the better of Mexico in not one — but two finals over the summer, besting El Tri in the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup.

The results signaled changing times in the region’s biggest rivalry. While its lopsidedness in favor of Mexico has long been overexaggerated, the playing field both now and for the future has never been so level.

As milestone as those victories may have been for U.S. Soccer, now is when the fixtures matter most. The triumphs of this summer are nothing but a footnote if they fail to turn up on Friday night in Cincinnati.

Just three points behind the leaders in Mexico, a win would send the Americans to the top of the octagonal, while a loss could see them cross the halfway point in fourth.

However, manager Gregg Berhalter will have to navigate this window without two nailed-on starters in attacker Gio Reyna and right back Sergiño Dest, who are both sidelined with injuries.

Replacing Reyna is relatively simple for the U.S., especially with the return of superstar winger Christian Pulisic from an ankle injury. Among Pulisic, Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson, the Americans have plenty of suitors to step in for Reyna on the wing.

Dest, however, is much more difficult to replace. The Barcelona defender has made frequent starts at both right and left for the U.S., a damning indictment on its surprising lack of depth at both fullback positions. The emergence of left back Antonee Robinson as a reliable game in and game out starter will soften the blow but certainly not deflect it.

Dest’s ability on the ball is essential in helping the United States play through the Mexico press, something that will become even tougher since Berhalter inexplicably left his best passing center back, John Brooks, off the team for this window.

Whether it’s DeAndre Yedlin or Reggie Cannon who ultimately gets the nod on Friday, the Americans will likely struggle to play out against a healthy Mexican side looking to avenge the embarrassment of this summer.

Jamaica has its reinforcements

Just three points out of fourth, and qualification for the playoff, Jamaica has remarkably survived given the brutal circumstances of its first two windows.

Without many of its top talents like West Ham forward Michail Antonio and Aston Villa winger Leon Bailey, the Reggae Boyz struggled their way through the opening six matches of qualifying.

The Jamaicans are no longer a welcome sight on the qualifying schedule for the other seven nations in the ocho.

Bailey and Antonio are back in the squad for the next two matches, in addition to Philadelphia Union forward Corey Burke and Morecambe left back Greg Leigh. They join Union goalkeeper Andre Blake in making up one of the most talented squads in CONCACAF.

Jamaica opens the window on Friday with a trip to El Salvador, arguably one of the most winnable matches on the qualification schedule regardless of which players were called in.

Throw in both the tactical and emotional boost from the return of their stars, and the three points in San Salvador should be nothing less than an expectation from the Reggae Boyz.

The task becomes much tougher the following Tuesday, when the United States come to Kingston, expecting to secure three points on the road. While there will be no fans in attendance, the Americans will fresh off their most physically and emotionally demanding 90 minutes of qualifying.

The United States are already banged up, and questionable roster decisions have stretched them even thinner at multiple positions before they even take the field against Mexico.

Securing three points against the U.S. has never been an easy task, but the conditions are as right as ever for Jamaica to steal the three points at home.

A perfect window is certainly within reach for this Jamaican squad reenergized by its much-needed reinforcements, and those six points would firmly insert them back in the qualification picture.

“CONCACAF Chronicles” runs Tuesdays.