Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala:
An invitation to the national squad is a big thrill for footballers. For two Reggae Boyz locked into Jamaica's current World Cup qualifying campaign, each 'call-up' in 2012 has meant much more. It's become a saving grace.
Even with Jamaica's chances of qualifying for World Cup 2014 delicately balanced on the edge of a complex combination of factors, some outside the Boyz' control heading into their own must-win clash with Antigua and Barbuda (A&B) tomorrow, Ryan Johnson and Dicoy Williams know they still have a shot at success this year.
It's more than they can say for their disastrous club season. So, whenever the two have joined the Boyz, it has been like walking from damnation to dreamland.
"It's a nice change to have compared to the struggles that our (club) team faced this season," Ryan explained hours before taking the field in Jamaica's 2-1 loss to Guatemala, a result which plunged the Boyz into third spot in Group A of CONCACAF's semi-final round of qualifiers.
"I look forward to it. Every time I am called up I am happy and fortunate to be in the situation that I am. It's a change of mindset when it comes to the club. So it's nice to be with Jamaica right now."
Jamaica's prospects look bleak. Yet this year Johnson and Williams have been no strangers to darkness. Both play for Major League Soccer (MLS) club Toronto FC (TFC) and the Canada-based club has compiled the most dismal record in North America's top professional league. TFC carved out the worst start in MLS regular season history by losing their first eight games. It hardly recovered in MLS, despite some success in the CONCACAF Champions League.
For TFC's two Boyz, who admit being hurt deeply by TFC's struggles, whenever Jamaica called in 2012, it was an emotional boost.
"Being with the guys (in the national team) is a different atmosphere," said Williams. "It's uplifting."
Neither Johnson nor Williams is complaining about their club. Both hope to return in 2013 to repair the damage. Johnson has been among the bright spots in the dismal MLS campaign, which led to the resignation of the head coach. He has played 30 of TFC's 32 games, starting all, and logged a whopping 2,700 minutes on the pitch.
The 27-year-old striker has scored seven goals, the latest a left foot rocket from 30 yards which lodged in New York Red Bulls' net. It was nominated for MLS 'Goal of the Week'.
But TFC lost 4-1 after Johnson's sixth minute strike, the sort of capitulation Williams calls "very stressing" because the 26-year-old defender has watched mostly from the bench.
Williams seemed set for a long stint in TFC's back line when he damaged knee ligaments playing for Jamaica in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Before that he had appeared in eight MLS games, starting seven and piling up 655 minutes.
Surgery and rehabilitation cost him the rest of 2011. This year he has appeared in only two MLS games, one as a starter, logging 86 minutes.
But Williams was solid against Liverpool during the English Premier League club's pre-season tour of North America and was recalled by Jamaica. In August, he played a friendly international against El Salvador and has been a part of Jamaica's squad since. He credits the national invitation with re-energising his belief.
"When I played that one game and I see where I finished it off and played the game very well, I feel very proud coming back from a long-term injury," he explained. "You know, I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing."
Johnson and Williams are fully aware their 2014 World Cup journey could end tomorrow. But the incentive to play for Jamaica also offers inspiration at club level.
"It's difficult, but at the same time it's what I'm supposed to be doing as an individual player," Johnson said of his performance in the midst of the TFC's slump.
" ... So you always have to make sure that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing on the field. You know, it's good for me, but at the same time I think about the (TFC) and it's unfortunate what's going on right now."
If the Boyz advance to CONCACAF's final round, at least TFC's Jamaican pair will have a silver lining.
"Everything is about Jamaica at that point," said Williams. "Not saying that you're leaving out your club, but when you make that transition from your club to your country it's more pleasing."