Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
A distinct Jamaican flavour will mark the 2011 Major League Soccer (MLS) play-offs, which kick off today in the United States.
Current and former Reggae Boyz, plus others who trace their roots to Jamaica, are on the rosters of at least eight of the 10 teams which advanced to postseason play in MLS, North America's top football league which ended its 34-game regular season last weekend.
Today, Dane Richards will be the first Jamaican in action when his New York Red Bulls tackle F.C. Dallas, last season's MLS Cup finalist, in one of two wild-card contests this week. Richards, completing his fifth year, is enjoying his best MLS season with seven goals and seven assists, the most in his professional career. He started all 27 games he played in 2011.
Richards capped the regular season in style by scoring the only goal in Red Bulls' win against Philadelphia Union on October 20, which secured New York's play-off spot. The speedy, 5' 7" midfielder headed a cross, which hit the upright, bounced off the Union goalkeeper, before crossing the line. It was first ruled an own goal, but the MLS later credited Richards.
The second wild-card game, to be played tomorrow between Columbus Crew and defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids, will feature Jamaica-born players on both rosters. Striker Jeff Cunningham, a St James native who has played international games for both Jamaica and the US and set the all-time MLS goal-scoring mark this season with 134, is joined on the Crew's roster by left-sided wingback Shaun Francis, who returned from early season injury to play six MLS matches, starting five.
That duo will face Reggae Boyz striker Omar Cummings and defender Tyrone Marshall of the Rapids. Anthony Wallace, a former US national youth captain with Jamaican parents, is also with the Rapids.
Cummings, despite making his first MLS All-Star team this year, has endured an up-and-down season plagued by injury. He scored three goals in 26 games this season, compared with 14 from 29 appearances in 2010.
But Marshall, who was acquired in 2011 by the Rapids as an insurance policy for its defensive unit, was a pleasant surprise. He started 24 of the 27 games he appeared in and recorded the second most playing time - 2,177 minutes - in his MLS career, which started in 1998 with the now defunct Miami Fusion.
Joining the top three
The winners of the one-off wild-card games will join the top three teams from each of the MLS's Eastern and Western conferences in the league's conference semi-finals. The matchups, in a home-and-away format, are scheduled for October 30 and November 3.
Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City, who employs Shavar Thomas, will play the higher-seeded wild-card winner. However, Thomas, who has captained Jamaica in numerous internationals this year, has only made three substitute appearances in MLS 2011 - a total of 35 minutes.
National players Jermaine Taylor, a defender, and midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson, both rookies with the Houston Dynamo, will get their first taste of MLS postseason action when they face the Union in the other Eastern Conference semi-final. Taylor, who also suffered injuries in 2011, has played in 13 games for the Dynamo. Watson started 11 of the 22 games he appeared in, scoring once and contributing two assists.
Missing the play-offs
Second-year player Lovel Palmer was traded from Houston to Portland Timbers during the season and will again miss the MLS play-offs.
In one Western Conference semi-final, Los Angeles Galaxy, with national goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts on its roster, will tackle the lower-seeded wild-card winner. Ricketts, the MLS's best keeper in 2010, returned from a broken hand suffered earlier this season to find his starting place no longer guaranteed. He played 15 games, including the final regular season fixture - a 3-1 loss to Houston on Sunday - conceding 11 goals overall. But it's wait-and-see if the 34-year-old gets the nod from coach Bruce Arena in the play-offs, which the Galaxy enters with the best regular season record in MLS.
In the other Western Conference semi-final, rejuvenated playmaker Andy Williams, like Ricketts a veteran of Jamaica's World Cup 1998 squad, will lead 2009 champion Real Salt Lake against the Seattle Sounders.
National striker O'Brian White, a St Ann native who was acquired by the Sounders in 2011, has missed a huge chunk of the season after undergoing two surgeries - in April and August - to remove blood clots from his leg. He is not expected to play a major postseason role.
The MLS semi-final games will be played on November 5 and 6. The MLS Cup final is set for November 20.