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Friday, August 26, 2016

Blake ready to go for do-or-die Jamaica qualifiers

Union goalie Andre Blake faces a tall task in Jamaica's two
World Cup qualifiers next week. (AP)
The mandate for Jamaica and Andre Blake leaves no room for error. If the Reggae Boyz can’t return from Panama City Sept. 2 with some kind of result, their hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup will be dashed with two barren years to go.

That’s the understanding Blake carries as he departs next week for the final two fixtures of the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying.

“It’s big games,” Blake said Friday after Philadelphia Union training. “I think the guys have been in this situation before. I don’t know what the result’s going to be, but I know for sure when it comes down to these situations, the guys go out and give their best. So hopefully their best will be good enough.”

Jamaica is up against it. It sits third in four-team Group B with four points from four games. It finishes the six-game round robin Sept. 6 with a winnable game at home against bottom-dwellers Haiti. But that could be academic if it can’t eke out at least a draw against second place Panama (2-1-1, 7 points) in the opener.

Only the top two in each of the three groups advance to the fifth round of qualifying, the Hexagonal. Costa Rica leads Group B with 10 points.
A summer after the Jamaicans made such noise in beating the United States and finishing second at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup, bombing out of the World Cup so early would be disappointing.

Blake, who was named to the roster Tuesday along with Bethlehem Steel forward Cory Burke, could have a big say in Jamaica’s ability to progress. The goalie’s next cap will be No. 13. He played all three group-stage games in Jamaica’s brief stay in this summer’s Copa America Centenario, in which Jamaica didn’t score a goal.

They have only two goals in four World Cup qualifiers. Blake has been in net for the last three, all but the group opener last November in which Panama upset Jamaica, 2-0, in Kingston to put the Reggae Boyz’s backs against the wall.

To put those struggles in the past, the latest 23-man roster must jell quickly.

“The biggest thing is going to be for us to see how quickly we can get together and start forming that team chemistry,” Blake said. “The greatest thing is that the coach tries to be consistent with the players that come in, so at least it’s not playing with total strangers. So that’s good. We didn’t have a great Copa, so going into the World Cup qualifiers, we know what we have to do, and I don’t think the guys need more motivation. I think the guys know what they have to do.”

Blake is one of nine MLS players on the roster and 12 American-based players.

Blake has played all but one game for the Union this season, going 9-9-7 with five clean sheets, a 66.9 save percentage and 1.56 goals-against average. He’ll miss the Union’s trip to Chicago Sept. 3.

“For me, as a professional, it’s about having a short-term memory obviously after you play a game, whether it’s good or bad,” Blake said. “You’re going to assess the game and see what you need to change, but for me, confidence is good going in.”

Burke, 24, would be in line for his first cap, perhaps a testament for the team’s desperate need for offense. Acquired from Rivoli United on loan in the offseason, the 6-foot-2 forward has scored four goals and one assist in 16 games with Steel.

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