JA hopefuls Stephenson, Dawkins hot favourites in MLS play-offs
Gordon Williams, Sunday Gleaner Writer
The growing buzz around Jamaica's latest World Cup bid hasn't escaped the attention of Khari Stephenson and Simon Dawkins.
They've followed the recent qualifiers, rooted for the Reggae Boyz and tried to picture how they'd fit on the road to Brazil 2014. At times, they've wondered why they aren't already on board.
"I have no idea," Stephenson admitted on Friday. "You'd have to ask the selectors why."
Jamaica's selection policy is often a declaration that "the door is open to all players".
Translation: Everyone eligible to represent the Boyz, including those who played in the recent CONCACAF semi-final qualifying round, has a chance to be part of the squad for the hexagonal. That's the final group of six, from which the three teams - possibly four - will advance to the World Cup.
The policy, however, doesn't always explain why particular players are left out.
Stephenson, now 31, has represented Jamaica at several levels and was arguably the Boyz' most outstanding player at the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup. He said he has not been invited for senior national duties since a couple friendly internationals early last year.
However, Stephenson and Dawkins have been keys to one of the most successful regular seasons in the history of Major League Soccer (MLS), North America's premier professional competition. In 2012, their club San Jose Earthquakes racked up the league's best record - 66 points from 19 wins, nine draws and six losses - while both players enjoyed solid seasons. If non-selection by Jamaica bothers them, they don't openly express it.
"If they call me, great," Stephenson said from his club's base in California, United States. "If not, fine. I know I always want to play for my country."
Dawkins, born in England, is eligible for Jamaica because his grandparents were born in the island. He has repeatedly declared his desire to represent the country and said he was last contacted by the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) a couple months ago.
"I've made it known, I've made it clear that I want to play for the Jamaica national team," the 24-year-old said Friday.
However, Stephenson's and Dawkins' more immediate concern is tonight's first leg Western Conference (W.C.) semi-final round play-off game at Los Angeles Galaxy, the defending MLS Cup champion. They are among a dwindling batch of players eligible for Jamaica - along with Jermaine Taylor and Je-Vaughn Watson, whose club Houston Dynamo also play today in the Eastern Conference semis against Sporting Kansas City - still involved in MLS post-season action.
Several did not make it. Last Thursday, the Vancouver Whitecaps' duo of Darren Mattocks and Dane Richards were eliminated after falling 2-1 to the Galaxy in a one-off WC matchup, despite a goal by Mattocks which gave the Whitecaps an early lead.
But far more is expected of San Jose. A quick play-off exit is unacceptable, especially since they were unbeaten against the Galaxy this season, winning twice. San Jose scored a whopping 72 goals, 13 more than second best Los Angeles, boasted an attacking style and the league's scoring leader. None of that matters now, according to Stephenson and Dawkins, if San Jose doesn't eliminate Los Angeles.
"Overall we were the best team in the league," explained Stephenson. "... But that part of the season is gone."
To get to the MLS Cup, San Jose must stop their interstate rivals, first away, then Wednesday's return leg at home. There's no plan to alter the blueprint for their 2012 success.
"We are going out to win both games," said Stephenson. "We are not going to sit back."