Jamaican rookie makes MLS play-off debut against defending champs
Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
If the odds are stacked against Darren Mattocks and his club for tonight's do-or-die Major League Soccer (MLS) play-off game, the Jamaican striker refuses to show it.
But they are hard to ignore, looming before the 22-year-old St Catherine native, a rookie in North America's top professional football league, like a huge brick wall.
Mattocks's Vancouver Whitecaps face Los Angeles Galaxy, the league's glamour team from America's glitter capital. The defending champions boast expensive, high-profiled MLS stars like David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane on their roster.
Mattocks, meanwhile, once a clear front-runner for MLS 'Rookie of the Year', is mired in a scoring slump. He has failed to find the back of the net since late July.
The odds makers - and, some may argue, the MLS brand - are leaning heavily on a Galaxy win. The weight of expectation is decidedly less on the rookie.
"Obviously, there is more at stake," Mattocks said before departing his club's Canada base for the Western Conference single elimination showdown in the United States. "I understand what's at stake. But there's no pressure on me."
For the Whitecaps, MLS post-season action is virgin territory, promising sweetness the further they penetrate, but only mild disappointment if they fall short of the championship.
"We've had a good season," said Mattocks.
The Whitecaps finished fifth in the conference, backing into a play-off spot on the season's penultimate weekend.
But the team has quality. Mattocks is the Whitecaps' top pick in January's MLS SuperDraft, second overall. The club's roster is loaded with able veterans, including Reggae Boy Dane Richards who, like Mattocks, is gifted with blinding speed.
The Whitecaps are likely to bank on their prized rookie. Mattocks leads the club in scoring with seven goals, despite twice missing games this season with injuries - burns and a hamstring strain - which also kept him out of the Jamaica senior men's team.
The second-year MLS club is not favoured to advance beyond tonight, especially against a team it could not beat in three matches this season, including 3-0 and 2-0 losses in Los Angeles. However, the Whitecaps, and their excited band of travelling supporters, hope to maximise the underdog edge.
"The pressure is on LA," said Mattocks, "especially in LA. They have the big name players and they are the champions ... .We can play without any pressure."
The no-fear approach may help the rookie burst out of his slump. Mattocks is not guaranteed a start tonight, but he has lost none of his bravado.
"I have been in enough high-pressure games in my career," said Mattocks, recalling championship games in high school (Bridgeport) and at college (University of Akron).
"For sure, (tonight) is gonna be different. It's gonna be a full stadium. They're gonna have all their big players. I think it's gonna be the best atmosphere yet."
The Home Depot Center favours Mattocks and Richards, whose pace worry MLS defenders. With Galaxy expected to press for a win at home, he believes the Whitecaps can exploit holes they leave behind.
"I would say the field is really big (in LA) and I think we can catch them on the counter (attack) with Vancouver's pace," Mattocks explained.
"When they send more people forward, that's where they'll be more vulnerable, especially with my speed and Dane Richards on the field."
He's not worried about loss of goalscoring form. Self-belief, a trademark since Mattocks joined the Whitecaps and declared he has "never felt like a rookie", trumps that.
"I'm not scoring, but I have the talent and confidence," he said. "That hasn't fallen off. The play-offs would be the perfect time to start to score again."
Just in time to beat the odds.