Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
FLORIDA, United States:
Fully aware that all eyes - and possibly a huge chunk of money - were on him, Darren Mattocks admitted he was below his best when he kicked off his quest for a professional football career at the Major League Soccer (MLS) Combine last Friday.
The Portmore, St Catherine native, a former star at Jamaica's Bridgeport High and the University of Akron in the United States, who is widely projected as a top pick in the MLS SuperDraft on January 12, did not hit top gear in the first of three games showcasing more than 50 of the best players from US colleges hoping to step up to North America's top league.
Mattocks swore he was "never nervous," just "excited" at the prospect of impressing the throng of MLS scouts. For Friday's performance - he gave himself 'a B' grade - the edge that earned the striker 24 goals his last season at Bridgeport and 39 goals in 47 matches for his college eluded him.
Mattocks assisted on one goal, but failed to find the back of the net himself in some 70 minutes as his team lost 3-2 at Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill.
But anyone searching for a dejected 21-year-old on Saturday's rest day for combine participants missed the mark. By far. Mattocks leans heavily on the same confidence that has taken him to the cusp of earning a decent living from the game he loves.
"No, I wasn't frustrated," he explained the day before the second trial match at the same venue. "For strikers, that's how it goes. There is no striker in the world that scores in every game, but it's what you do after, in the next game and the next game. So you just gotta keep focus, keep humble and keep disciplined and ready to go again."
He blamed the sub-par first game largely on his holiday layoff from the game in Jamaica.
"Just coming back after the winter break, I think my legs were slightly dead," he said with a smile, adding that he hoped to be "firing on all cylinders" for the remainder of the combine, which was scheduled to include a second match yesterday and one tomorrow.
Feedback from club/player representatives and general observers here concluded that although he was not in top form, Mattocks did not damage his chances much on Friday. His reputation is so high going into the draft, having already signed with MLS and Generation Adidas, only a total disaster should prevent him from being among the first players chosen.
"He needs to be a bit sharper," assessed Jamaican-born Hylton Dayes, head coach of the University of Cincinnati, which competed against Akron when Mattocks was in his first of two seasons at the school. "However, everyone knows if there are five top players here he must be among them."
"I don't want to put too much stock on (Friday)," explained Damani Ralph, a former Jamaica national player who works as an agent for the American firm that represents Mattocks.
"It's the first day. Most of the players are tight, they're excited."
Ralph thinks Mattocks is set to make an immediate impact in MLS and tips him to break his MLS rookie goal-scoring record of 11. But the striker will also need to buckle down quickly to life as a pro. Ralph thinks he has all the tools.
"Another super attitude," said Ralph describing Mattocks. "He's a kid that learns. He's like a sponge. He absorbs everything you tell him. Smart kid. He's gonna do well. Look at the boy; he can head the ball. I think he heads the ball better than I did at his age. He kicks the ball well, he moves off the ball well. So he's just gonna have to put his head down and work and become a good professional."
Mattocks is aware of his upside. He has expressed preference for a particular team in MLS, but plans to give his best for any club that selects him. He turned down a contract offer with a UEFA Champions League club from Denmark, but said he still plans to play in Europe - England, Germany or Italy ideally - one day. He would like to go to a MLS club with a Jamaican on the roster to help ease the transition from college, "to teach me, since I'm gonna be a rookie," he said. Montreal Impact, which has the first pick in the drafted, recently traded for national goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
That would also give him insight to another level of football he hopes to reach - the national team. Mattocks, who played at Waterhouse FC, has never been capped for Jamaica, although he has been invited to national training camps at the junior and senior levels. Establishing himself as a pro, he hopes, will jump-start his international career. But there's no rush.
"It's gonna open the eyes of the Jamaica Football Federation that Darren Mattocks is the real deal," he explained. "I'm patiently awaiting my call so I can show what I can do."
For now, he believes he is ready to shoulder the responsibilities of being a top MLS pick - along with the expectations that come with it.
"That brings no pressure at all," said Mattocks." I've been expecting this a couple years now. I've been mentally prepared, physically prepared for it. I think I'm ready to go number one. So we've just got to hope and see what the draft unfolds."
He acknowledged immediate adjustments will be necessary.
"While you can take a slight break in college on the field, at the next level it's pro, it's your job," explained Mattocks. "You're playing for a job and a spot on the team. So you've got to make sure you stay consistent for 90 minutes; stay mentally disciplined for 90 minutes."
The rewards, if he can fulfil the expectations at his position, can be huge.
"Goalscorers make the most money," said Mattocks, who is used to playing as a lone striker or partnering with another player at forward. "They are under the microscope every second, because if they don't score it's like they're not doing their job."
When MLS opens pre-season training camps later this month, it will be time for Mattocks to punch the pro clock and start earning his keep.