The Jamaica national team will kick off the next phase of its campaign to qualify for the 2018 World Cup with matches against Panama (on November 13) and Haiti (on November 17). For New York Red Bulls' fans, eyes will be on Kemar Lawrence - the Jamaican left back who has emerged as a surefire starter for his club and one of the best at his position in the region based on his recent work for his country.
Jamaica head coach Winfried Schaefer has, as expected, named a strong squad for the occasion of the Reggae Boyz opening games of this crucial qualifying segment. There are a few surprises - teenager Junior Flemmings and near-forgotten forward Dever Cargill - but mostly the roster selected to face Panama is in keeping with the team Schaefer has been developing over the summer, using Copa America and Gold Cup to create a seasoned core squad that made a surprising run to the final of the CONCACAF regional tournament.
England-born striker Clayton Donaldson will perhaps be the most keenly watched of the new faces in the Jamaica squad. The Reggae Boyz have long lacked a consistent international goalscorer, despite no shortage of attacking talent in the player pool. Donaldson has been a regular scorer in English football for most of the last decade. Though he has never played in the English Premier League, he has tallied double-digit goals in each of the four divisions immediately below his country's top flight. He may not be the last man Schaefer asks to provide greater scoring consistency for his team (there is an ongoing effort to win Bradley Wright-Phillips' commitment to Jamaica's cause), but he should get an opportunity to stake his claim in this November international window.
Panama's national team appears to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, this the team that has finished third at two of the last three Gold Cups (2011 and 2015) and was runner-up in the CONCACAF tournament in 2013. It has a respected veteran presence - Jaime Penedo, Felipe Baloy, Blas Perez - to balance an exciting crop of young talent: Roberto Chen, Darwin Pinzon, Ismael Diaz (not in this squad, but looking increasingly like a CONCACAF star of the not-too-distant future). Los Canaleros are good.
On the other hand, this is the team that did not win a game at the 2015 Gold Cup (it relied on penalty shootouts to secure its passage to third place), and couldn't quite muster the resolve to hold out on home soil for the result required to win qualification to the 2014 World Cup. Los Canaleros are vulnerable.
Group B of this phase of CONCACAF qualifying is the most difficult of the three in this round. Panama and Jamaica are competing with Costa Rica and Haiti for two spots in the Hex. At least one of three teams that made the last CONCACAF Hexagonal (Costa Rica, Panama, and Jamaica) isn't going to make the next one.
Both teams know pretty much exactly what they need to do to qualify for the next round: win at home, draw away. That formula isn't quite foolproof, but it will get a team to first or second in a four-team group on most occasions. So Jamaica, as the home team, very much wants the win. Panama will take a point as more than adequate compensation for its travels. And both teams know - impressive runs in the 2015 Gold Cup notwithstanding - that they are (joint) second-favorites to Costa Rica in this group.
As such, for Panama and Jamaica, this opening game of the fourth round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is one of the most important they will play in this phase: it will immediately determine which of these two sides is thought to have the best chance of following Costa Rica into the Hex.